Tag Archives: Ron Hobbs

Threading the needle with Cassini at Saturn

The hugely successful Cassini mission to Saturn will come to a fiery end in September, and you can hardly blame NASA for going a little Star Trek on us.

Ron Hobbs

Ron Hobbs. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“We’re going somewhere where no spacecraft has ever gone before, into this region between the glorious rings of Saturn and the cloud tops of the planet,” said Ron Hobbs, a NASA Solar System Ambassador, at this month’s meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society. After 22 orbits through the eye of that needle—a 2,500-kilometer-wide gap—they’ll splat Cassini into the planet and burn it up.

“Now that we’ve discovered that there’s at least one moon, and maybe several, that could have the conditions for life, it’s very important to not leave a derelict spacecraft orbiting around Saturn,” Hobbs noted. “One of the important things at the end of the solstice mission will be to dispose of the spacecraft.”

The second extended mission of Cassini was named solstice because it is almost the beginning of summer in Saturn’s northern hemisphere.

Let’s do science

Before they crash Cassini, they figured there was some time to do some great science in that place where no spacecraft has ever gone. Most importantly, they will get a better picture of the internal structure of Saturn and examine its ionosphere, inner radiation belts, and auroral region.

“This would have been worth sending a spacecraft to Saturn for just that measurement,” Hobbs said, noting that it is essentially what Juno is doing at Jupiter. They’ll also check out the particles of Saturn’s D ring at close range, and be able to better gauge the mass of the ring system, which will help pin down its age.

“I can’t wait for the pictures,” Hobbs added. “The pictures that come out of this mission are just going to be spectacular.”

Shooting the gap

Hobbs said NASA has been using interactions between Cassini and Saturn’s moon Titan to nudge the spacecraft’s orbit to where they want it to be.

“Titan is really the only object in Saturn orbit that has enough mass to allow it to do gravitational assists and re-direct its orbit,” he said. “That allows [Cassini] to change its orbit and change the plane of its orbit.”

Cassini orbits

This graphic shows the closest approaches, or periapses, of Cassini’s final two orbital phases.The ring-grazing orbits are shown in gray; grand finale orbits are shown in blue. The orange line shows the spacecraft’s final plunge into Saturn. Credit: NASA / Jet Propulsion Laboratory – Caltech

In late November a brush with Titan dropped Cassini’s perichron—the point closest to Saturn in its orbit around the planet—down to just outside the F ring. In April, another Titan flyby will drop that perichron down to between the D ring and Saturn’s cloud tops.

“That’s when it’s going to get really exciting,” Hobbs said. Cassini will do 22 “grand finale” orbits through the eye of this needle, each lasting six days, collecting science data until one final encounter with Titan puts the spacecraft on a trajectory to splat into the planet on September 15.

It’s amazing how much planning and politics went into all of this. Hobbs said the actual trajectories of the orbits for this grand finale were determined a little over three years ago. Ever since then there’s been a spirited discussion between scientists, engineers, and mission leaders about what science to do to get as much data as possible out of the final mission. That determination was just completed last month.

“The spacecraft drivers are now writing the code for these orbits,” Hobbs said. That will tell Cassini where to go and where to point its instruments to make the observations as planned.

A good ride

Hobbs noted that Cassini was launched in October 1997, and so will end its mission just shy of twenty years in space.

“Without a doubt it has been one of the most successful and audacious missions NASA and the international community have operated,” he said. “This is going to be one of the highlights of space exploration in the last couple of decades.”

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Valentine’s week astro events

Astronomy buffs will have to make a tough call Wednesday as two interesting but very different events will be held across town.

CassiniThe Seattle Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, February 15 in room A102 of the Physics/Astronomy building on the University of Washington campus in Seattle. Guest speaker Ron Hobbs, a NASA JPL Solar System Ambassador, will give a talk titled, “Cassini’s Grand Finale: Overview and Challenges.” Hobbs will cover the daring moves the orbiter will make in its final days at Saturn before the mission ends and the craft is crashed into the planet in September.

Women in ScienceMeanwhile at Seattle University the Infinity Box Theatre Project will present its eighth annual Galileo Dialogues at 7 p.m. Wednesday, February 15—Galileo’s birthday!—in the Seattle University Student Union Building, Room 160. The evening is presented in collaboration with the Seattle University Physics Department and the Association for Women in Science, and features a reading by Catherine Kettrick of “Celebrating Women in Science”—things you don’t know about several centuries of women who have made major contributions to several areas of science—mostly in their own words. It’s free, though donations are appreciated. You can reserve a seat online.

Nerds in space

The Science and Math Institute and Multicultural Services at Bellevue College will hold a lunchtime Science Café at 12:30 p.m. Friday, February 17 in room C130 of the student center. Guest speaker Tim Lloyd, a rocket scientist with Blue Origin, will share his experiences working for the local space flight company in a talk titled, “One Nerd’s Journey to Space.”

Planetarium shows

Catch a free planetarium show about New Horizons at the Willard Geer Planetarium at Bellevue College at 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. Saturday, February 18. The shows are sponsored by the college’s Astronomy Department and the Science and Math Institute. There’s no charge, but you can make reservations online to assure yourself a seat.

The Willard Smith Planetarium at Pacific Science Center has programs daily. Find their full schedule on our calendar page.

The Washington State University Planetarium in Pullman offers a show about the Moon on Monday, February 13 and a special Valentine’s show on Tuesday, February 14. Both programs begin at 7 p.m. Admission is $5.

Up in the sky

Have you been enjoying views of Venus lately? The planet reaches “greatest illuminated extent” this week, which means it’s at its very brightest. This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope magazine and The Sky This Week from Astronomy offer more observing highlights for the week.

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SAS banquet, AoT this week

One of the more anticipated astronomy events of the year will happen this week, and Astronomy on Tap Seattle will have a Friday gathering in Ballard.

SAS banquet

Kelly Beatty

Beatty

The Seattle Astronomical Society‘s annual banquet will be held at 5 p.m. Saturday, January 28 at the Swedish Club on Dexter Avenue North in Seattle. In keeping with the society’s great track record of attracting excellent speakers each January, Kelly Beatty, a senior editor of Sky & Telescope magazine, will give the keynote talk about Pluto, from its discovery through the New Horizons mission. In addition to his post with the magazine, Beatty serves on the board of the International Dark-Sky Association and is a passionate advocate against light pollution.

Reservations for the banquet are available online and must be made by this Wednesday, January 25. The price is $45 for society members, $60 for non-members. The discount is a good reason to join today!

Astronomy on Tap

AOT Jan 2017Astronomy on Tap Seattle will turn the floor over to Blue Origin for its gathering at 7 p.m. Friday, January 27 at Peddler Brewing Company in Ballard.

Former NASA astronaut Nicholas Patrick, now the Human Integration Architect at Blue Origin, will talk about “The New Shepard Astronaut Experience” on the company’s crewed spaceflight vehicles; and Blue Origin staffers Sarah Knights and Dan Kuchan will give a talk titled, “Blue Origin: Earth, in All its Beauty, is Just Our Starting Place.”

It’s free, but do remember to buy some beer, as astronomy and a good brew go together! Winners of the evening’s trivia contests will be in line for some special Blue Origin prizes. A ride on a spacecraft, perhaps?

Astronaut remembrance

Apollo 1 crew

L-R: Astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee were killed in a cabin fire during a launchpad test of Apollo 1 on Jan. 27, 1967. Photo: NASA.

It’s a sad time of year in space exploration as astronauts of Apollo 1 and the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia perished during accidents in late January and early February. From January 27 through February 5 the Museum of Flight will host an exhibit and video paying tribute to the astronauts who were lost in the quest to explore outer space.

NASA JPL Solar System Ambassadors Ron Hobbs and Tony Gondola will give a special presentation about the astronauts at 2 p.m. Saturday, January 28 at the museum.

Futures file

You can scout out future astronomy events on our calendar. We’ve recently added information about The Galileo Dialogues coming up February 15 from Infinity Box Theatre Project. The page also features a full schedule of planetarium and stage science shows at Pacific Science Center.

Up in the sky

Saturn and Mercury play tag with the Moon as it wanes toward new this week. This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope magazine and The Sky This Week from Astronomy offer more observing highlights for the week.

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Talk about Proxima b highlights week’s calendar

Thanksgiving week is a little light on astronomy events, but there are several club meetings and an interesting talk on the calendar.

Habitability at Proxima b

Victoria Meadows

Victoria Meadows. Photo: UW.

There has been a great deal of talk about exoplanet Proxima b since its discovery in orbit around our nearest stellar neighbor, Proxima Centauri, was announced this summer. The planet’s orbit is within the habitable zone of the star, but there’s still a great deal of question about how habitable planets can actually be when they orbit are close to M dwarf stars such as Proxima Centauri. Victoria Meadows, a professor of astronomy at the University of Washington and principal investigator for the NASA Astrobiology Institute’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory, will talk about how they’re modeling the Proxima system and prospects for observing this interesting exoplanet at 3 p.m. this Tuesday, November 22 during an astrobiology colloquium in Physics/Astronomy Auditorium 118 on the UW campus in Seattle.

If you can’t be there in person you can view the presentation via live stream.

Club events

Rose City AstronomersThe Rose City Astronomers will hold their monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Monday, November 21 at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland. The guest speaker will be Troy Carpenter, administrator of the Goldendale Observatory State Park in Washington, who will talk about the limitations of human vision, how those limitations hinder our ability to observe the universe, and the technological solutions of the past century that allow us to transcend these challenges. Carpenter will also talk about the Goldendale Observatory upgrade project.

The Island County Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 6:30 p.m. Monday, November 21 at the Oak Harbor Library. No information about guest speakers or programming had been published as of this writing.

Ron Hobbs

Ron Hobbs. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

The Eastside Astronomical Society will meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday, November 22 at the Lake Hills Library in Bellevue. Guest speaker Ron Hobbs, a NASA Solar System Ambassador, will talk about how amateur astronomers and other citizen scientists are contributing to space exploration by helping to process the deluge of imagery that comes down daily from space probes.

Futures file

You can scout out future astronomy events on our calendar. New additions to the calendar this week include:

Up in the sky

Jupiter will appear very close to the Moon on Thanksgiving day. This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope magazine and The Sky This Week from Astronomy offer more observing highlights for the week.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Answering What If? Friday in Bremerton

Planetarium events and a handful of astronomy club functions highlight the astronomy calendar for this week.

Pacific Planetarium in Bremerton plans shows titled “What If?” this Friday, July 15 at 5 p.m., 6 p.m., and 7 p.m. The sessions will take on some of the queries posed in the book What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) by Randall Munroe, the former NASA scientist turned cartoonist and creator of the comic xkcd. Admission to the programs is $5.

For those traveling to the planetarium from the east side of the sound, it is less than a mile from the Bremerton ferry terminal. Save the car fare and walk on!

Pacific Science CenterThe Willard Smith Planetarium at Pacific Science Center features daily programs on a variety of topics, and they have offerings suitable for all ages. Check our calendar, or theirs, for the schedule.

Astronomy club events

Olympic Astronomical SocietyThe Olympic Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Monday, July 11 in room Art 103 at Olympic College in Bremerton. Talks on the agenda will cover the summer night sky, explosions in space, and core collapse super novae.

beaslogo_300The Boeing Employees Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting Thursday, July 14 in the Boeing “Oxbow” Recreation Center, Building 9-150, Room 201. The program will be “Juno to Jupiter: Piercing the Veil,” a presentation by solar system ambassador Ron Hobbs about the Juno mission, which arrived at Jupiter last week. A social half hour begins at 6:30 p.m. with the program slated for 7 p.m. All Boeing employees, friends and family are invited. Non-Boeing guests must be escorted, so please RSVP to BEAS president David Ingram.

You can get a preview of the program by reading our recent article with Hobbs or listening to the podcast directly below.

Tacoma Astronomical SocietyThe Tacoma Astronomical Society plans one of its free public nights for 9 p.m. Saturday, July 16 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. The all-weather program will cover constellations and star-hopping. If the skies are clear club members will be on hand with telescopes for observing.

Up in the sky

Mercury and Venus will be very close together while Saturn and the Moon do a little dance on Friday. The Sky This Week from Astronomy magazine and This Week’s Sky at a Glance by Sky & Telescope have more observing highlights for the week.

 

 

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Juno at Jupiter, lots of nearby events this week, too

Happy Independence Day! After a five-year flight NASA’s Juno spacecraft arrives at Jupiter today, and there are astronomy club meetings and events galore on the calendar for the rest of the week.

Juno at Jupiter

The Juno mission arrives at Jupiter with some science objectives that may explain much about our solar system’s largest planet, and could help shed some light on planet and system formation as well. Check out our previous post and podcast with Solar System Ambassador Ron Hobbs for a preview of the mission.

Club events

Tacoma Astronomical SocietyThe Tacoma Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 5 in room 175 of Thompson Hall on the University of Puget Sound campus in Tacoma. The program topic will be the final of three parts on the synthesis of elements. A show and tell is planned as well, as club members have been busy with astrophotography.

The Tacoma club also will hold a star party July 7-10 on the property of a club member near Goldendale. It’s for members and guests only, but what a perfect time to join!

Spokane Astronomical SocietyThe Spokane Astronomical Society plans its monthly meeting for 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 8 at the Riverview Retirement Community, 2117 East North Crescent in Spokane. Guest speaker Michelle Boss, meteorologist with KREM TV, will give a presentation about astronomical weather patterns.

The Battle Point Astronomical Association will offer three events on Saturday, July 9 at its Edwin Ritchie Observatory in Battle Point Park BPAA logoon Bainbridge Island. Their BPAstro Kids programs at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. will share information about the scale and size of our solar system, and participants will get to make their own solar systems to hang up at home! (Check our post and podcast with Dr. Erica Saint Clair, who heads up BPAstro Kids.) Following at 8:30 p.m. astronomer Steve Ruhl, in a belated tribute to David Bowie, will give a presentation about “space oddities” in our Solar System. Observing will follow if weather permits. Events are free for BPAA members, small donation suggested for non-members.

Stargazing at a volcano

Mt. St. HelensThe Mount St. Helens Sky and Star Party will be held Saturday, July 9 at the Mount St. Helens Science and Learning Center at Coldwater. The event is part of the 2016 Summer on the Mountain Series of public events at Mount St. Helens and is co-hosted by the Mount St. Helens Institute, Rose City Astronomers, the Friends of Galileo Astronomy Club, and the United States Forest Service/Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.

Festivities get under way at 1 p.m. with solar viewing, crafts, and other activities. There will be guest speakers, a buffet dinner, and observing after dark if the weather holds.

Open house at TJO

Theodor Jacobsen ObservatoryAnother of the twice-monthly open houses is coming up at 9 p.m. Wednesday, July 6 at the Theodor Jacobsen Observatory on the University of Washington campus in Seattle. Student talks will be given by Lev Marcus about the colonization of space, and Isaak Nanneman about eccentric scientists. Volunteers from the Seattle Astronomical Society will give tours of the observatory and, if weather is clear, offer a look through its vintage telescope.

Up in the sky

The great summer of Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn continues with all three planets marvelously placed for viewing. This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope magazine and The Sky This Week from Astronomy have more observing highlights for the week.

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Juno set to answer big questions at Jupiter

Almost five years after it was launched, NASA’s Juno spacecraft will arrive at Jupiter on July 4, and Ron Hobbs is pretty excited about it. Hobbs, a Seattle-based NASA Solar System Ambassador, recently learned the inside scoop about the Juno mission during a teleconference with the mission’s principal investigator, Dr. Scott Bolton, who is the associate vice president for the space science and engineering division at the Southwest Research Institute.

Juno at Jupiter

Artist concept of Juno at Jupiter. Image: NASA/JPL.

“The Juno mission is about reverse-engineering the recipe of the soup that is our solar system,” Hobbs said. He noted that the Sun contains the vast majority of the mass in the solar system. After the Sun was born, Jupiter formed next, and it weighs two-and-a-half times more than everything else—the rest of the planets, comets, asteroids, the works.

Juno has four main scientific objectives, according to Hobbs: figuring out what’s at Jupiter’s core, studying the planet’s atmosphere and magnetosphere, and figuring out where its water came from.

Water

Ron Hobbs

NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador Ron Hobbs. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“The present theories about the solar system origin and evolution do not explain how Jupiter was enriched in heavy elements,” Hobbs said, noting that, in astronomical terms, anything above hydrogen or helium is considered heavy. “The key to understanding how the giant planets form, and then how the rest of the planets form, and how other planetary systems form is really the key to how those heavy elements got into Jupiter.”

Hobbs noted that the Galileo mission in 1995 sent a probe into Jupiter in search of water but didn’t find much. Scientists speculate they may have just gotten unlucky, and hit a sort of Sahara Desert area of Jupiter. Juno will avoid that problem by using antennas to measure microwave radiation from Jupiter; we’ll be able to tell how much water is there by how much energy is absorbed. It’s a lot less costly than probes and we’ll be able to get measurements from all over Jupiter and to greater depths.

Atmosphere

Juno will answer questions about Jupiter’s most visible features as it studies the Jovian atmosphere.

“It’s going to be able to get atmospheric composition, temperature, cloud opacity and dynamics to depths greater than 100 bars at all latitudes,” Hobbs said. “We’re really going to start to understand what those belts and zones that we see here from Earth are composed of.”

Magnetosphere

“Jupiter has a huge magnetosphere, and there’s still some uncertainty about how it formed,” Hobbs noted. Like Earth’s Van Allen Belts, there’s a lot of radiation trapped there.

“They’re so intense at Jupiter that any spacecraft going into them is in danger of having its electronics fried,” Hobbs said. “Humans, living things, would never survive; the radiation levels are just incredible.”

Juno will make polar orbits around Jupiter. Previous missions have taken equatorial orbits. Hobbs said the polar orbit will help the craft avoid intense radiation, and will create some great imaging opportunities.

“We know that Jupiter has incredible aurorae, but they’ve never been seen up close,” Hobbs said. “In polar orbit Juno is going to be able to get close-up views.”

Gravity science

Jupiter is known as a “gas giant,” but scientists believe it has a metallic core of really heavy elements: iron, nickel, silicon and the like. They don’t know for sure.

“The gravity science that Juno will do will answer that question, will tell us the interior structure,” Hobbs explained.

Juno will study the interior of Jupiter by mapping both its gravitational and magnetic fields. Hobbs said scientists expect to find metallic hydrogen.

“We believe that at some point down in this giant body hydrogen is under so much pressure that it becomes a metal,” Hobbs said. “We believe there’s a whole ocean, if you will, or mantle of metallic hydrogen.”

About Juno

Hobbs said Juno is the second mission of NASA’s New Frontiers program. New Horizons, which flew past Pluto last summer, was the first.

“New Frontiers is a follow-on to the Discovery program, where NASA basically funds investigator-led missions,” Hobbs said. “The Discovery missions are all low-cost missions, largely to the inner solar system, but there were enough targets of opportunity that they saw the need for an expanded program.”

Juno will make 33 orbits of Jupiter, each taking about two weeks. It will get within 5,000 kilometers of its cloud tops. The electronics are protected from radiation inside a 200-kilogram titanium vault. The craft is powered by huge solar panels that are about 80 feet across as the craft spins. It will be the furthest we’ve sent a solar-powered spacecraft.

Juno Cam

Junocam photo of Earth

This image of Earth was taken during the close flyby of NASA’s Juno spacecraft on October 9, 2013. The coastline of Argentina is at the upper left, and clouds cover much of Antarctica at bottom. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Juno will be spinning, which makes photography a challenge. But we love our space images, and Hobbs said the craft carries the Juno Cam to grab photographs, though it’s not considered to be an official scientific instrument. Still, it took some great images of Earth during a gravity-assist fly-by in 2013. Hobbs said Juno Cam is naturally outside the titanium vault, which will leave it exposed to radiation.

“I’m looking forward to getting those pictures taken and down here on Earth early on in the mission, because I have a feeling it’s going to be one of the first things that gets fried,” he said.

Hobbs is looking forward to getting data from Juno starting next month.

“It’s a cool mission and it’s answering some really fundamental questions,” he said. “We’re going to learn a lot about our place in the universe once again.”

Podcast of our conversation with Ron Hobbs:

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