Category Archives: space

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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Ride, Sally, ride

Journalist Lynn Sherr was good friends with astronaut Sally Ride for more than thirty years, but when Ride died in 2012 Sherr said she knew neither of Ride’s diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, nor knew for certain of her twenty-seven-year relationship with science writer Tam O’Shaughnessy.

“Sally was very good at keeping secrets,” Sherr said during a recent talk at Town Hall Seattle while promoting her biography of the astronaut, Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space.

Sherr met Ride in 1981 when she was on track to fly on the space shuttle and Sherr was newly appointed to the ABC Television News team covering space missions. Sherr laughed at the notion of joining Frank Reynolds, who covered NASA from the beginning of the space program, and Jules Bergman, whom, she said, “practically invented the field of science journalism.”

“Then there was me—who took botany in college to get around my science requirement!” Sherr joked. “I was the color guy.” Ride was among her first interviews, and Sherr said they soon became fast friends.

“We shared a very healthy disregard for the overblown egos and the intransigence of both of our professions, and beneath her very unemotional demeanor, which some found icy, I found a caring and a witty friend,” Sherr said.

Sherr explained that she understands why it took a quarter century of the space program before NASA finally put a woman in space. In the beginning, the need was for military pilots with security clearances, which meant virtually all of the candidates were white men. But when the shuttle program came along, they had bigger crews and needed scientists, so NASA created the position of mission specialist.

“That’s what they started looking for when they reached out to women and minorities starting in 1976,” Sherr said. “All of this, of course, opened the door for people like Sally Ride.”

Ride originally wanted to be a tennis pro but was headed for an academic career when she saw a notice in the Stanford Daily that said NASA was recruiting women. She applied for the gig, and a year later was part of a thirty-five-member astronaut class that included six women, three African American men, and one Asian American man.

“NASA was suddenly looking like the poster child for multiculturalism,” Sherr said, “and all credit to them.”

Ride flew on the shuttle in 1983, and upon her return from being the first American woman in space received a call from President Ronald Reagan, who told Ride she was the best person for the job.

“Millions of other women agreed,” Sherr said. “I think what they did was translate her bold journey into their own tickets for success. Sally became an icon; the can-do symbol of what we can do in the world.”

Photo (9)

Journalist Lynn Sherr spoke about Sally Ride and her new biography of the first American woman in space during an appearance at Town Hall Seattle.

Sherr said she never fully appreciated the “psychic price” her friend Ride—an extreme introvert and naturally shy person—paid for her celebrity, and felt especially sorry that Ride didn’t feel able to go public with her romantic relationship with another woman, O’Shaughnessy.

“I think it’s also part of her story, because hers is a story of a particular time and a particular place and a woman who had the brains and the agility to sieze the moment,” Sherr said. “When Sally was born in 1951 outer space was science fiction and women’s rights were marginal. The social advances and the lucky timing that would enable both to intersect with this life of a very gifted young scientist I think makes hers an inspiring lesson in modern American history. She took full advantage of the ever-widening definition of a woman’s place, and spent much of her life making sure it was everywhere. That she could not or would not openly identify herself as a gay woman reflects not only her intense need for privacy, but the shame and the fear that an intolerant and ignorant society can inflict even on its heroes.”

Sherr said Ride’s life is one for the history books.

“She proved that you don’t need the right plumbing to have the right stuff, in any field or any endeavor.”

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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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