Category Archives: space

White spots on Ceres may be salt

The first big surprise as the Dawn spacecraft was approaching the dwarf planet Ceres earlier this year were bright white spots on its surface. Now that Dawn has been orbiting Ceres for six weeks, a theory has emerged about what the spots are: salt.

Dr. Tom McCord, a planetary physicist who is co-investigator on the Dawn mission, spoke about the exploration of Ceres Saturday during an astronomy day event at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Dr. Tom McCord, a planetary physicist who is co-investigator on the Dawn mission, spoke about the exploration of Ceres Saturday during an Astronomy Day event at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Dr. Tom McCord, a co-investigator on the Dawn mission and director of the Bear Fight Institute, a research organization based in Winthrop, Wash., spoke at an Astronomy Day event Saturday at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle. Here’s why he thinks the spots could be salt.

McCord explained that Ceres is differentiated: it has a rocky core, a water-ice mantle layer, and a dirty crust. He noted that they’ve learned a lot from the early photographs.

“There’s a lot of evidence of activity; many craters, an older surface, but not as old as the object, so something obliterated the craters from early on,” McCord said. “Distorted features, so the surface had to have been warped.”

“There are domes, things pushing out from the inside,” he continued, “and bright spots that suggest that material from inside has come to the surface in some sort of volcanism.”

In addition, McCord explained that ground-based telescopes have detected water vapor that comes and goes in the area of Ceres. Liquid water from the interior of Ceres may be being ejected to the surface, where it wouldn’t last long.

Ceres

This image was taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft of dwarf planet Ceres on Feb. 19 from a distance of nearly 29,000 miles (46,000 kilometers). It shows that the brightest spot on Ceres has a dimmer companion, which apparently lies in the same basin. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA.

“What that would do is leave a residual salt deposit, so these bright spots could be salt deposits that accumulated around vents—volcanos—where the water is coming through,” McCord speculated.

He stresses that the work on data from Ceres is still in its early phases, joking that, “We scientists don’t know entirely what we are seeing.”

McCord said the evidence of geological activity has been the most interesting finding so far at Ceres.

“It has been active and may well still be active today,” he said. “That’s exciting to a physicist because you really want to know whether these processes that you conjure up in your models really have happened and, we hope to learn, to what extent and over what time scale.”

Ceres is a great target for study because it may hold clues to how planets form. It is the only dwarf planet in the inner solar system and is the largest object in the asteroid belt. With a diameter of 590 miles, it’s about as big as Texas.

“This is a very large small planet,” McCord said. Ceres comprises about a third of the mass of all objects in the asteroid belt.

The Dawn spacecraft is unique, according to McCord.

“It is the only interplanetary spacecraft that uses ion propulsion, and that is the only reason we are able to orbit two different objects in the outer solar system and still have enough fuel to go on,” he said. Dawn launched in 2007 and studied the asteroid Vesta for 14 months in 2011 and 2012 before heading to Ceres.

“Dawn is really a pathfinder for this kind of multiple-object extended exploration,” McCord said.

Dawn will be collecting data at Ceres for another year to 18 months. McCord said the spacecraft has four momentum wheels and needs three of them to hold itself in stable position. However two of the wheels have failed, so mission scientists are using the craft’s thrusters as a substitute. The hydrazine fuel will eventually run out, and Dawn will tumble about in a stable orbit around Ceres for a long, long time.

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Space policy dean, Curiosity engineer to speak in June at Museum of Flight

Our copy of Aloft, the member magazine of the Museum of Flight, arrived in the mail today bearing news of two interesting space talks planned for the museum in June.

John M. Logsdon, founder of the Space Policy Institute and considered by many to be the dean of U.S. space policy, will discuss his new book, After Apollo?: Richard Nixon and the American Space Program. The book is part of the series of Palgrave Studies in the History of Science and Technology. In it, Logsdon takes a look at how President Nixon and his administration impacted post-Apollo space policy. Logsdon gave something of a preview of his presentation here in Seattle at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society in January. You can read our coverage of that talk to learn that Logsdon doesn’t think very highly of Nixon’s approach. Logsdon is scheduled to speak at 2 p.m. Saturday, June 13, 2015 in the William M. Allen Theater at the museum.

The following weekend Rob Manning will be in town to tout his aptly titled book, Mars Rover Curiosity: An Inside Account from Curiosity’s Chief Engineer (Smithsonian Books, 2014). Manning, who is indeed the chief engineer for the mission, will discuss the challenges of getting such a large and complicated robot safely to Mars to conduct science. Manning’s talk, also in the Allen Theater, will be at 2 p.m. Saturday, June 20.

You can pick up copies of the books by clicking the links or cover photos above, or by visiting the Seattle Astronomy Store. Keep track of any schedule changes by watching the Museum of Flight website. These events are so new that, as of this writing, they weren’t yet listed on the museum’s online calendar. We’re planning to cover both talks.

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New documentary series takes a look at private space

Private space exploration is a relatively new and booming industry, and a small company out of Santa Monica, California is launching an ambitious effort to create a series of short documentary videos exploring the political, legal, and social implications of the industry.

Private Space has produced three episodes so far, and is hoping to raise at least $10,000 through a Kickstarter campaign in order to produce nine more over the next year.

Tamir ElSahy

Tamir ElSahy is the writer and director for the documentary series Private Space.

Tamir ElSahy, the writer and director of the Private Space series, which is hosted on YouTube, says it started as a passion project and creative outlet for him. ElSahy is genuinely interested in the topic.

“The world has a lot of stories to tell and this just seemed like an interesting one,” he says. Beyond just telling a good story, ElSahy aims to provide useful information for an informed public. The series will orbit around three main topics: the entrepreneurs who propel the private space industry, the public officials who influence it, and the citizen scientists who are contributing in significant ways to the research and exploration of space.

“Our hope is to highlight a story in each episode from one of these themes to help us take a more holistic approach to breaking down what the developments are and how they’ll impact people’s lives,” ElSahy says.

“I don’t want to just rehash what happened,” he adds. “I want to make sure that we’re there to explain and break down what’s going on, the complicated issues, and simplify them for the online audience.”

Early episodes have featured California state senator Steve Knight, who authored the state’s Space Flight Liability and Immunity Act; Dr. Lee Valentine, chairman of the Space Studies Institute and an early investor in XCOR; and Adam Block, renowned astrophotographer whose work is frequently featured on the popular Astronomy Picture of the Day website. The shows are well done; check them out on the Private Space YouTube channel.

As of this writing the Kickstarter effort has raised more than $1,600 from 33 backers. ElSahy says the funds raised will help him and his crew, “go to New Mexico, to Texas, to Washington D.C., to Seattle, to all the places that have buzzing activity regarding the industry and get some insight wherever we can.”

Seattle Astronomy wishes Private Space and ElSahy best of luck with their efforts. You can view the trailer for their Kickstarter campaign below.

More information

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An evening with famed comet hunter Don Machholz

In an age when automated programs are scanning the night sky using high-tech telescopes, CCD cameras, and computing power to find near-Earth objects, Don Machholz continues to search for comets the old-fashioned way.

“I do it visually,” Machholz explained at the annual banquet of the Seattle Astronomical Society last month. “I do not use cameras, I do not use CCDs. I look through the eyepiece and I push the telescope.”

Scheiderer and Machholz

Seattle Astronomy’s Greg Scheiderer, left, with comet hunter Don Machholz at the Seattle Astronomical Society’s annual banquet. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Machholz is the record holder, with eleven comets discovered visually since he started his hunt in the mid-1970s. That doesn’t sound like so many, but consider this: according to the Catalog of Comet Discoveries, there have been 1,502 comets discovered since 2005. Of those, just three have been discovered visually. The Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) got full or shared credit for thirty-three comet discoveries last year alone. The last time a comet was discovered visually was in 2010, when there were two, and Machholz bagged one of those.

There’s a little bit of luck involved in comet hunting. Machholz jokes that the first thing you need to do to find a comet is to be looking where it is in the 40,000 square degrees of sky. But he has a system. He checks websites to figure out where the programs like Pan-STARRS are looking on a particular night and then conducts his hunt in a different part of the sky. Machholz divides the sky into sections, and makes telescope sweeps covering about fifteen degrees at a time. Then moves down about a half field of view and sweeps again. He keeps meticulous records of his searches.

“It sounds boring, but you get to see a different part of the sky all the time,” Machholz said.

He got interested in astronomy as a boy. His father was a naval navigator and had a book with star charts that Don used to learn the sky. When he was about eight years old his sister brought home a book about meteors that piqued his interest. Finally, Machholz received a telescope for his thirteenth birthday. On the third night out he found Saturn.

“I could see the rings on it,” he recalled, thinking stargazing might not be such a bad hobby. He was hooked.

A family tragedy helped drive Machholz’s comet-hunting program early on. In 1976 his brother, an avid skier, was killed in an avalanche. Machholz found himself depressed, with insomnia, sleeping just a few hours a night, but with lots of energy.

“That’s kind of the ideal ingredients for a comet hunter,” he said. “For the next three or four years my comet hunting program developed to a greater and greater depth. Comet hunting wasn’t just something I did, it became part of who I am.”

His early comet hunting was done from his parents’ back yard and other locations around Concord, California. After moving to San Jose in 1976 he did much of his observing from nearby Loma Prieta mountain. In 1990 he moved to Colfax, California and built an observatory there.

After so much time at the eyepiece, Machholz says his heart still skips a beat or two when he thinks he has found a new comet.

“It’s a very important moment,” he said. “First I want to remember what song was on the radio.” He always has the radio playing when he hunts, and his presentation was full of music from the Rolling Stones and the Beatles to Phil Collins and Cyndi Lauper. He adds, though, that there’s no time for jumping up and down when he finds a comet, because there’s serious work to do.

“You don’t want to lose it,” he explained. “You might have it in the field now, but if you bump the telescope or let too much time go by and it drifts out of the field, you have to be able to find it again.”

“You have to be sure you know where you’re looking, make sure it’s not a galaxy or a cluster,” he added. He double checks with his star atlas, makes a drawing that puts the comet in its position compared to the field of stars, and watches to see if it moves. If all that checks out he reports the discovery by email, phone, and fax.

96/P Machholz

Comet 96/P Machholz as seen by the HI-2 camera on the STEREO-A spacecraft.

Of all of his discoveries, Machholz said comet is 96P/Machholz is his favorite.

“It is an amazing comet; it has its own Facebook page,” he said.

The orbit of 96/P Machholz changes because of the influence of Jupiter, and the perturbations have some scientists thinking there may be large undiscovered planets way out beyond Pluto. The comet also is low on carbon and cyanogen. This hasn’t been explained, though the leading ideas are that it may have originated in another solar system, or been exposed to temperature extremes that changed its chemical composition.

It was a pleasure to spend an evening with Don Machholz. His lively presentation was full of humor and had the banquet audience laughing and engaged.

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Happy fourth birthday to Seattle Astronomy!

Seattle Astronomy celebrated its fourth birthday last week; our first post came on January 9, 2011, and was a brief preview of the 217th meeting of the American Astronomical Society, which began that week in Seattle. Our calendar post also looked ahead to a photo exhibit by Roger Ressmeyer and a talk at the Boeing Employees Astronomical Society by Dr. Connie Walker of Globe at Night.

We wrapped up our fourth year with some observing of Comet Lovejoy on birthday eve, from our observing deck at Seattle Astronomy world headquarters in West Seattle. In this post we look back at our five favorite stories from the past twelve months.

5: Tyler Nordgren speaks at Seattle Astronomical Society annual banquet. Nordgren, professor of astronomy and physics at the University of Redlands in California, is an artist, photographer, national park curriculum designer, and night-sky ambassador. He also is the author of Stars Above, Earth Below: A Guide to Astronomy in the National Parks. Nordgren has designed travel posters for solar system destinations, in the style of the 1930s WPA “see America” works. We picked up one of his Mars posters for the Seattle Astronomy office. Nordgren is an engaging speaker and is doing some great work on behalf of dark night skies. Other enjoyable book talks in the past year were given by journalist Lynn Sherr about her biography of astronaut Sally Ride, and by Roberto Trotta about his book The Edge of the Sky, in which he explains cosmology using just the 1,000 most common English words.

4: Sky Guide developers win Apple Design Award. Seattle-area software developers Chris Laurel and Nick Risinger, founders of Fifth Star Labs, received a 2014 Apple Design Award for their gorgeous iOS app Sky Guide. The app was featured as one of the hot products for 2014 in the January 2014 issue of Sky & Telescope magazine.

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.

3: Seattle as sundial capital of North America. University of Washington astronomy professor Woody Sullivan gave an engaging talk about sundials at a gathering of the Eastside Astronomical Society in March. The subject was so compelling that the conversation went well beyond closing time of its venue at an Eastside library and continued in the parking lot for another 45 minutes.

2: AAS 225 meets in Seattle. Billed as the Superbowl of Astronomy, at least in football-mad Seattle, the American Astronomical Society held its winter meeting in town to kick off 2015. It was a coincidence that we were geared up to attend the previous Seattle meeting four years ago just as we started the blog. However, complications resulting from having a day job prevented us from attending that confab in 2011. For reasons not entirely unrelated, we quit the day job the following month to join the family consulting practice. Four years later Seattle Astronomy and Scheiderer Partners are still going strong!

A number of great stories came out of AAS 225, including the announcements of new exoplanets, the release of new data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and a talk by one of the Rosetta mission scientists. We have a few more stories yet to come from the event, including those about a talk by Max Tegmark about multiverses, and some storytelling from the folks who discovered Fermi bubbles.

The AAS is next scheduled to be in Seattle in January 2019, though there’s been some talk of shaking that quadrennial schedule up a bit and holding one of the society’s summer meetings in town.

Solar Eclipse

The partial solar eclipse of October 23, 2014, right around the time of maximum coverage as seen from Seattle. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

1: Partial Solar Eclipse visible from Seattle. Solar eclipses are rare events, and it’s even more unusual to see them in Seattle because our odds for a cloudy day are a bit higher than those of other cities. But last Oct. 23 things worked out beautifully as we saw much of the first half of a partial solar eclipse, from shortly after the event began to about the time of greatest coverage. At least that was when the clouds rolled in for the duration at Seattle Astronomy headquarters in West Seattle. We captured a few photos while it lasted and shared the day with some neighbors. It was a successful skywatching event and the clear highlight of the astronomy year in Seattle.

Happy birthday to us! We are hoping that year five proves to be just as much fun. Keep looking up!

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Tessering around the universe with A Wrinkle in Time at OSF

It is a bonus when our interests in theater and astronomy intersect, and that is happening this season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland with its production of A Wrinkle in Time, based on the 1962 novel of the same title by Madeleine L’Engle. The OSF play is a world premiere adapted and directed by Tracy Young.

A_Wrinkle_in_Time

Alejandra Escalante as Meg Murry in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of A Wrinkle in Time.

In A Wrinkle in Time math whiz Meg Murry (Alejandra Escalante), her über-genius little brother Charles Wallace Murry (Sara Bruner), and pal Calvin O’Keefe (Joe Wegner) zip around the universe in search of missing papa Murry (Dan Donohue). They accomplish their travel by bending time and space in a tesseract, or “tessering,” as explained by the helpful science fair project by Science Girl (Jada Rae Perry).

Kids traversing the universe make for some imaginative and wonderfully silly stage effects and costumes, and we think especially of the multi-tentacled Aunt Beast (Daniel T. Parker), for whose costume a good half-dozen vacuum cleaners must have given their lives, or at least their hoses.

The performances are top-notch. We single out Escalante and Bruner especially, as well as Judith-Marie Bergan, who was much fun as Mrs. Whatsit, something of an intergalactic tour guide for the adventurers. Bergan, we think, can play anything, from the comic to the manic (as we note my Sweetie, the official scorer’s, recent review of last year’s production of The Tenth Muse.)

For all of its goofiness, the play takes on some serious themes about the mysteries of the universe, the nature of time and space, the dangers and advantages of technology, and of the strength and importance of family ties and love. The science isn’t so heavy that you need to be a cosmologist or physicist or a math geek like Meg to get it, though a bit of sci-fi familiarity with the concept is helpful.

According to the program notes the book took criticism from all sides when it came out, some charging it with being too religious and others saying it is too secular. That feels like it hit the right spot! The book also has some Cold War undertones about how things would look under a totalitarian society.

We’ve not read the book but plan to pick it up when we return home from Ashland. The play runs at the Angus Bowmer Theatre through November 1. It’s great fun; check it out!

***

This review is republished from the West Seattle Weisenheimer.

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Book review: Marketing the Moon

Public relations practitioners and space nuts alike should check out the new book Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program. If you’re both, like myself and authors David Meerman Scott and Richard Jurek, you’ll enjoy it doubly so. The book details the public relations and marketing efforts that supported the Apollo program and the race to the Moon during the 1960s.

Especially interesting to me from the PR standpoint was the extent to which NASA and scores of contractors were able to pull in the same direction while helping to tell the tale of the people and the equipment that made the Moon landings possible and popular. Whether their particular piece of the quest was a rocket booster, a wristwatch, or a powdered breakfast drink, participants in the space program were able to share in the attention generated by Apollo without going so far as to say that Neil Armstrong endorsed Tang.

Also fascinating to me, as a former radio reporter who worked for mostly resource-strapped stations (is there any other kind?), was the tale of one small-town station reporter’s efforts to cover the Moon shots on the cheap. He filed his stories using the broadcast equivalent of baling wire and bubble gum.

Marketing the Moon is a large-format volume and a handsome, highly visual one, with lots of Apollo-era photos, print advertisements, and samples of public relations materials used by the various participants in the space program.

I’ve long been of the opinion that NASA public relations has been top-notch. I’ve spoken with former NASA administrator Michael Griffin and space historian Roger Launius about the notion that NASA PR may actually have been too good. Polling shows that people support NASA, but they also believe that its budget is too high, at least in part because they also have a greatly exaggerated impression of what the agency’s budget actually is.

That said, Marketing the Moon is also the story of public relations failure. While the race to the Moon was staggeringly popular, and Armstrong’s giant leap was watched by billions of people around the globe, the buzz didn’t last. Once the race was won, interest flagged among both the media and the public. One can debate which got bored first, but ultimately the attention span wasn’t there. The final three scheduled Apollo missions were canceled, and while missions such as the Mars rovers, and particularly the amazing landing of Curiosity on Mars two years ago, have generated some interest, we haven’t come close to the mania achieved by the effort to land a man on the Moon and return him safely to the Earth.

Marketing the Moon is a recommended read. Pick it up in the Seattle Astronomy store.

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