Tag Archives: Museum of Flight

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:

###

Please support Seattle Astronomy with a subscription through Patreon.

Become a Patron!

You can purchase Chasing New Horizons through the title link or by clicking the book cover image above. A small percentage of the fee comes to Seattle Astronomy and helps us create interesting astronomy stories. We thank you!

Share

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

###

Please support Seattle Astronomy with a subscription through Patreon.

Become a Patron!

Share

Calendar: SAS banquet and Astronomy on Tap Seattle this week

The annual Seattle Astronomical Society banquet and Astronomy on Tap Seattle are the highlight events for the coming week. The Museum of Flight kicks off Astronaut Remembrance Week, and regional planetarium shows cap the calendar.

SAS Banquet

Robert Reeves

Robert Reeves

The Seattle Astronomical Society banquet always draws an excellent guest speaker, and this year is no exception: renowned photographer Robert Reeves will keynote the annual banquet, and talk in particular about observing and imaging the Moon. The banquet gets under way at 4 p.m. Sunday, January 28 at the Swedish Club on Dexter Avenue North in Seattle. Reservations are $65 for the general public, $55 for SAS members. Don’t wait; there were only 18 spots left as of this writing. Reservations are available online.

Reeves will do a special master class on lunar photography for the SAS Astrophotography Special Interest Group. The class is open to the public and will be held at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, January 27 in the Red Barn Classroom at the Museum of Flight.

Astronomy on Tap Seattle

AOT Seattle January 2018The topic will be exploring alien moons when Astronomy on Tap Seattle holds its first event of the new year at 7 p.m. Wednesday, January 24 in the beer garden at Peddler Brewing Company in Ballard. Second-year UW graduate student in astronomy and astrobiology Tyler Gordon will speak about his research on the search for exoplanetary satellites using current and future telescopes. UW Ph.D. student in oceanography Max Showalter will discuss looking for life when the trail goes cold, an update on his work using movement as a sign of life in icy places.

Showalter did a talk at Town Hall Seattle almost two years ago. Check our recap of that talk and learn how SHAMU is helping hunt for ET.

Planetarium shows

The Washington State University Planetarium in Pullman has a new show this week titled, “Millions of Miles to Mars.” The show explores the whats, hows, and whens of Mars visits. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Friday, Jan 26, and 5 p.m. Sunday, Jan 28. Tickets at the door are $5 cash or check; they don’t accept credit cards. Kids under six get in free.

The Willard Smith Planetarium at the Pacific Science Center has a variety of shows for all ages every day. Check their website for the complete calendar.

Astronaut remembrance

America’s three great spacefaring tragedies all occurred at this time of year. To honor the sacrifices of the fallen astronauts, the Museum of Flight holds an annual astronaut remembrance week. The event runs from Friday, January 26 through Sunday, February 4 and features displays and exhibits about the fallen astronauts and their accomplishments. Solar System Ambassador Ron Hobbs will give a presentation about the tragic missions, and about the risks and successes of space travel, at 2 p.m. Saturday, January 27. It’s free with museum admission.

Future file

A total eclipse of the Moon will be visible in the early morning hours of Wednesday, January 31. The event begins just after 3 a.m. PDT, the partial eclipse starts around 3:45, and it will be total from just before 5 a.m. until a little after 6:00. All you really need to do is go outside and look up, but if you want to watch with others, the Seattle Astronomical Society plans a group viewing event at Solstice Park in West Seattle.

You can always scout out future events on our calendar.

###

Please support Seattle Astronomy with a subscription through Patreon.

Become a Patron!

Share

Calendar: Meet with Ladies Who Launch this week

Ladies who launch gather this week at the Museum of Flight, and there’s a lot of local club activity on the calendar.

Ladies who Launch

Ladies who launchElsbeth Magilton, executive director of the Space, Cyber, and Telecommunications law programs at the University of Nebraska College of Law, will speak at a special Ladies Who Launch event at 6 p.m. Tuesday, January 9 at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. Magilton’s areas of specialty include commercial space law and policy, cybersecurity and cybercrime, and national security. She will focus on the need for more women in leadership positions in aerospace and the technology sector, and positive, concrete steps we can take to advance our careers accordingly.

Ladies Who Launch is a specialized networking group for professional women with ten or more years of experience and a passion for flight, who are actively seeking to advance their careers in any industry and hold, or desire to obtain, leadership roles. Tickets to the event are $35 and are available online.

Battle Point

The Battle Point Astronomical Association’s monthly public events are coming up Saturday, January 13. Family date night starts at 4 p.m. when BP Astro Kids look at how things spin and what that means. The presentation repeats again at 5 p.m. Following at 7:30, the monthly planetarium show looks at the similarities between telescopes and dragonflies, and examines the work of a new class of ‘scopes. There will be stargazing, too, weather permitting.

Astronomy club meetings

Olympic Astronomical Society, Monday, January 8, 7:30 p.m.
Heart of the Valley Astronomers, Tuesday, January 9, 7 p.m.
Boeing Employees Astronomical Society, Friday, January 12, 7 p.m. Agenda
Everett Astronomical Society, Saturday, January 13, 3 p.m.

Futures file

Rose City Astronomers meet next Monday, January 15, at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland. The guest speaker will be Ethan Siegel, author of Treknology: The Science of Star Trek from Tricorders to Warp Drive (Voyaguer Press, 2017). Check out our podcast and article with Siegel about the book. You can always scout future Northwest astronomy events on our calendar.

###

Please support Seattle Astronomy with a subscription through Patreon.

Become a Patron!

Share

Calendar: club events open December

As we flip the calendar to December, there are a couple of good headline events, four astronomy club meetings, and several educational events to look forward to.

Astronaut and mountaineer Scott Parazinski is the only person ever to have both flown in space and stood on the top of Mount Everest. He’ll be at the Museum of Flight at 2 p.m. on Saturday, December 9 to talk about his experiences and his new book, The Sky Below: A True Story of Summits, Space, and Speed (Little A, 2017). Parazinski will sign copies of the book after his talk, which is free with museum admission.

If you can’t make it Saturday, you can pick up the book by clicking the link above or the book cover at left; Seattle Astronomy gets a small royalty at no cost to you when you purchase this way, and it helps support our operations. Thanks so much!

Life in Space

The Pacific Science Center’s Science in the City lecture series continues at 7 p.m. Wednesday, December 6 with a program called Life in Space. Three University of Washington astrobiologists will discuss their research—including the search for planets around other stars, characterizing how stars influence the habitability of those planets, and techniques to mix computer modeling with data analysis to determine the characteristics of potentially habitable worlds. Two of the three presenters will be familiar to Seattle Astronomy readers. Brett Morris is a PhD candidate of astronomy and astrobiology at the University of Washington and is a co-founder and co-host of the popular Astronomy on Tap Seattle events. Dr. Erika Harnett is a research associate professor and was featured on the blog and podcast this year. The “new guy” is Marshall “Moosh” Styczinski, a grad student who does research using magnetic fields to peel back the icy crust of Jupiter’s moons, looking for places that life may be found.

After viewing the documentary The Search for Life in Space, the trio will answer questions about their research and other topics addressed in the film.

Tickets to Life in Space are $5, free for Pacific Science Center members.

Astronomy club activity

Four clubs have their monthly meetings this week:

In addition, two clubs have public outreach events on Saturday. The BP Astro Kids on Bainbridge Island will make LED holiday cards during sessions at 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. at the Ritchie Observatory on Bainbridge Island. Following at 7:30 p.m. the Battle Point Astronomical Association monthly planetarium show will focus on how neutron stars make gold, and how we can tell they’re doing it. The Tacoma Astronomical Society will hold one of its public nights at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, December 9 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. The indoor presentation will be a viewing of the movie The Christmas Star. At both the Battle Point and Tacoma events there will be stargazing if the weather permits.

###

Please support Seattle Astronomy with a subscription through Patreon.

Become a Patron!

Share

Visiting Vesta and Ceres

The Dawn spacecraft has found a lot of surprises at Vesta and Ceres. Debra Buczkowski
a geologist and planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, gave a talk recently at the Museum of Flight discussing some of the findings from the mission.

Buczkowski

Dr. Debra Buczkowski, a geologist and planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, spoke about the findings of the Dawn mission to Vesta and Ceres recently at the Museum of Flight. (Photo: Greg Scheiderer)

Vesta was Dawn’s first stop, entering orbit around the asteroid on July 15, 2011. Scientists expected to find volcanoes on Vesta. Buczkowski explained that this expectation traces back to meteorites found on Earth that are know to be from Vesta. These are known as HEDs: “howardite–eucrite–diogenite.” These closely resemble igneous rocks found on Earth, and those are made from volcanic activity. But the volcanoes aren’t there.

Before Dawn arrived at Vesta the Hubble Space Telescope showed that Vesta wasn’t spherical, but rather was significantly flattened out at its south pole. Scientists speculated that this was because of an enormous impact, and that proved to be correct. Dawn observed a huge impact crater, now called Rheasilvia Basin, the rim of which is almost as wide as Vesta itself.

“It really should have broken the asteroid apart,” Buczkowski said of the impact that created the basin, which has a huge central peak. Dawn also found a second impact crater, Veneneia Basin, which is almost as large.

Another surprise finding from Dawn is that Vesta is fully differentiated.

“Most of the asteroids are just kind of chunks of rock with one kind of rock all the way through,” Buczkowski explained. “Not Vesta; Vesta actually has a core, it has a mantle, and it has a crust.”

Vesta’s core is about half the diameter of the asteroid itself, about 220 kilometers.

“This is probably why Vesta did not fall apart when the Rheasilvia Basin formed, because it has this huge, massive core,” Buczkowski said.

The surface of Vesta was found to have lots of fractures, features larger that Earth’s Grand Canyon that look like faults. Buczkowski said they did a lot of computer modeling to see if an object the size of Vesta with a core the size of Vesta’s could develop fractures on the crust.

“The stresses that result from that huge impact kind of get redistributed because of the giant core,” she said of the findings. “Instead of being focused around the crater, they move to the equator and fracture at the equator. If we do this same model without the giant core, there’s no fracturing at the equator. So it’s because of the giant core that we have these huge fractures.”

Buczkowski said that was a little disappointing because they were hoping for volcanoes or magma-driven geology. While they didn’t find volcanoes, there is evidence of moving magma that didn’t break through to the surface. Rather, it pushed some of the surface upward, forming mounds.

On to Ceres

Dawn departed Vesta in September 2012 after spending about 14 months in orbit. As Dawn approached the dwarf planet Ceres there was much speculation about extremely bright spots on its surface that were found in Hubble images. Other observations had detected water vapor on Ceres. Since Ceres is relatively large but not dense, scientists were expecting to find ice. But there was more rock and less ice than anticipated. What they did find, Buczkowski said, was evidence of volcanism.

Occator crater

This image from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft shows Occator Crater on Ceres, with its signature bright areas. Dawn scientists have found that the central bright spot, which harbors the brightest material on Ceres, contains a variety of salts. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

“We’re not expecting magma on Ceres,” she said. “Ceres isn’t dense enough for the kind of magma that we’re used to here on Earth, made out of silicate rocks. This is something called cryomagma; it is basically ice with a little bit of rock.”

The biggest and brightest of the bright spots, named Cerealia Facula, is in the crater Occator. Many of the craters on Ceres are fractured, even on the crater floors, and the many bright spots on Ceres are associated with these fractures.

“What it’s looking like is that we’re having cryomagmatic activity underneath (Occator) crater,” Buczkowski said, “and what’s coming up out of these fractures is a pyroclastic spray, and the water, the volatiles in that, is sublimating away and all it’s leaving is the sodium carbonates.” Those are the bright spots we see all over Ceres.

Dawn also found that Ceres is covered in ammoniated phyllosilicates.

“Ammonia is interesting,” Buczkowski explained. “We don’t expect to find ammonia this close to the Sun, it’s usually something that’s found further out in thhe solar system.” They’re still studying whether Ceres may have formed further from the Sun and migrated in, or if the ammonia somehow made its way to Ceres from the outer solar system.

It turns out that Ceres had quite a few volcanoes, though most of them have now collapsed. There’s one that hasn’t, known as Ahuna Mons, that stands about five kilometers tall. It’s a cryovolcano.

“The volcano that we thought would be on Vesta is on Ceres,” Buczkowski noted. Ahuna Mons may be younger than the others, and also may collapse over time.

Like Vesta, Ceres was found to be differentiated, though only partially so.

“There’s a rocky core, there’s a volatile-rich mantle, and there’s a muddy slurry, a mud ocean” below the crust, Buczkowski said.

Dawn at Ceres and VestaCeres is now considered a dwarf planet, while Vesta still has asteroid status because of its lopsided shape from the giant impact. Buczkowski figures Vesta deserves dwarf-planet status, too. Whatever you call them, she thinks they’re fascinating to study because they’re kind of a bridge between the asteroids and rocky planets.

“These are more involved bodies than just plain, old asteroids,” Buczkowski said. “They’re not just chunks of rock floating in space. They’re actually like little mini-planets. They’ve got a lot of planet-like properties.”

Though they’re pretty small, they can teach us a lot.

“They’re interesting to us because they tell us a lot about how Earth and the other planets formed,” Buczkowski said. “Studying these little protoplanets we actually are looking back to the beginning of the solar system.”

###

Please support Seattle Astronomy with a subscription through Patreon.

Become a Patron!

Share

Calendar: Orbit around October

A month of space and astronomy events are on the calendar at the Museum of Flight, with three events kicking it all off this week.

Orbit Around October

Orbit Around OctoberThe museum’s space month is dubbed Orbit Around October, with new events on Saturdays during the month.

It all starts off on October 5 with Astronomy Night during the museum’s monthly Free First Thursday. There’s no admission charge between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. Area astronomy clubs will be on hand with telescopes and information, and there will be other educational activities throughout the evening.

The museum also offers a couple of events on Saturday, October 7. A 2 p.m. presentation called “21st Century Communities in Space: The Cultural Details in Living Away From Earth” will celebrate the 60th anniversary of Sputnik, and then look forward to the future when we’ve colonized the Moon and Mars and are creating communities in space. What sort of culture will be there?

Then at 5:30 p.m. join in on a reception, lecture, and book signing with space writer Leonard David. David’s book Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet (National Geographic, 2016) is a companion to the recent Mars miniseries produced by the National Geographic Channel. Tickets to this event are $25, $20 for museum members, and must be purchased online by October 3.

Haunted Night Sky

The Pierce College Science Dome brings back the popular planetarium show Haunted Night Sky on Saturdays during October. The show, geared for kids aged 3-12, guides viewers to use their imaginations to find creatures in the night sky, build a Frankenstein satellite, and take a tour of the Sea of Serpents on the Moon, the Witch’s Head nebula, and other spooky places in the universe. Showtimes are 12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. each Saturday, and it runs about 45 minutes. Tickets are $6 for kids—adults are free—and are available in advance online.

Astronomy clubs

A quick rundown of the regional astronomy club meetings this week:

Mark your calendar

You can scout out future astronomy events by visiting our calendar page.


Please support Seattle Astronomy with a subscription through Patreon.

Become a Patron!

Share