Tag Archives: Seattle Astronomical Society

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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Kelly Beatty’s history of Pluto

The history of Pluto goes way back before it became a tiny twinkle in Clyde Tombaugh’s blink comparator. Kelly Beatty, a senior editor at Sky & Telescope magazine, told the story of Pluto in his keynote address Saturday at the annual banquet of the Seattle Astronomical Society.

Scheiderer and Beatty

Kelly Beatty, right, with Seattle Astronomy’s Greg Scheiderer at the annual banquet of the Seattle Astronomical Society January 28, 2017. Astronomy guys love their astronomy ties. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

In a way, according to Beatty, the hunt for Pluto dates back to the late 1700s. The Titius–Bode law (since repealed) of the distances to the planets from the Sun worked well, with one exception: according to the law, there should be a planet between Mars and Jupiter. Thus a group of astronomers calling themselves the “celestial police,” led by Franz Xaver von Zach, set out to find this elusive object. They did it; on New Year’s Day, 1801, Giuseppe Piazzi discovered Ceres. It wasn’t long before Juno, Vesta, and Pallas we found. At first all four were labeled planets, but now they’re known as the four largest asteroids—and possibly the first celestial objects to be demoted in status.

Dumb, fool luck

Lowell blink comparator

Blink comparator used by Clyde Tombaugh at Lowell Observatory to discover Pluto. Photo: © User:Pretzelpaws / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0.

Later, because of irregularities in the motion of Uranus, astronomers predicted another planet out beyond its orbit. But even after the discovery of Neptune in 1846, anomalies remained. Percival Lowell and William Pickering predicted there was yet another planet beyond Neptune. The hunt was on for Planet X, and Pluto was finally discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. We soon learned that Pluto was pretty small, which lent some irony to its discovery.

“Pluto didn’t have any effect on Uranus and Neptune at all,” Beatty said. “It turns out that the mathematics were incorrect, the positional accuracy of those early observations was bad. There was no basis to the prediction whatsoever, and by dumb, fool luck Clyde found the planet Pluto that he had been seeking within about six degrees of the predicted position. Freakingly by accident.”

We didn’t know a whole lot about Pluto for a long time. The best photos we could get were fuzzy Hubble Space Telescope shots. Astronomers found methane ice on Pluto in 1976, and its moon Charon was discovered in 1978. Pluto’s atmosphere was discovered in 1988 when it occulted a star.

Pluto on thin ice

“In 1998 the bottom fell out of the pro-Pluto movement,” Beatty said. The beginning of the end was the discovery of another distant object in what we now call the Kuiper Belt. Astronomers figured that there had to be more out there than just Pluto, and we now know of more than 1,800 of them. Many of these objects are locked in a 3:2 orbital resonance with Neptune, just like Pluto.

“Not only is Pluto not alone, it’s not even unique in its orbit,” Beatty said. “Things did not look good for Pluto and its planet status.”

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) started hearing chatter that Pluto should not be a planet, and in 1999 it passed a resolution declaring that it still was. Brian Marsden, who headed the minor planet center of IAU, really wanted to classify Pluto as an asteroid, according to Beatty.

Then, in 2005, Eris was discovered. At the time it appeared to be bigger than Pluto, though we now know it is slightly smaller. It was bureaucracy that finally knocked Pluto off the planet list. Different committees at the IAU name planets and asteroids, so to decide to which committee to refer the new discovery for naming, they had to decide what it was. This led to the new definition of planet, under which neither Eris nor Pluto fall. The IAU declared Pluto to be a dwarf planet in 2006.

Beatty is not fond of the IAU definition of planet: an object that orbits the Sun, has enough mass to be round, and has “cleared the neighborhood of its orbit.”

“It’s a really stupid definition,” Beatty said, mostly because it’s hard to know the mass of faraway objects, and so the definition is difficult to apply. Plus he finds it puzzling that a dwarf planet is not a planet.

“We have dwarf stars which are considered stars.” he pointed out. “We have dwarf galaxies that are considered galaxies. A chihuahua is still a dog.”

New Horizons

Pluto

New Horizons close-up of Pluto, one of the first and most iconic images from the mission. Photo: NASA.

Planet or not, the New Horizons flyby of Pluto in 2015 gave us a ton of new information about it and its moons. Beatty shared numerous photos of and findings about Pluto from the mission. It’s mostly made of rock, and might have liquid water below its surface. The surface features are mostly hard-frozen water ice, with a little frozen nitrogen, methane, and carbon dioxide mixed in.

Most fascinating is evidence of geology happening right now in the form of flowing nitrogen ice.

“Pluto’s surface, against all odds, out in the frozen corner of the solar system,” Beatty marveled, “has flowing glaciers on it.”

The last of the Pluto data from New Horizons arrived on Earth back in October, but the mission isn’t over. The probe is headed out for a look at the Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69, at which it will arrive on January 1, 2019.

Beatty said this great new data about Pluto was worth the wait.

“We finally know what this planet/dwarf planet/interesting world looks like,” he said. “It was a 30-year effort from the time the Pluto missions were first conceived until we finally got out there. Some of the people involved, like Alan Stern, were there every year of the way, and boy, what a rich reward they have for their efforts.”

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LIGO and the era of multimessenger astronomy

Multimessenger astronomy is a fairly new buzz word in the science. Dr. Joey Key, an assistant professor of physics at the University of Washington Bothell and a member of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, talked about the concept at last month’s meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society.

Joey Key

Dr. Joey Key of the UW Bothell gave a talk about LIGO and the era of multimessenger astronomy at the Dec. 21 meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society. Key made the same presentation to the Everett Astronomical Society Jan. 7. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

As you probably know LIGO—the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory—made the first detection of gravitational waves, as predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity, back in December 2015 and announced the findings last February. So now what?

“The next big goal for LIGO is to have a gravitational wave detection where we also get an electromagnetic signal from the same source,” Key explained. She noted that various wavelengths of light, from gamma ray to radio, require different types of tools to detect and reveal different things about objects observed. Key said gravitational-wave astronomers refer to such science as “electromagnetic astronomy.” The big hope, then, is to learn even more if there can be an electromagnetic observation as well as a gravitational wave observation of the same event.

“That’s what we would call a multimessgenger source,” Key said.

A difficult search

Einstein never thought gravitational waves could be detected because he figured they would be too small. It took a century of technological advances to prove him right—again. Finding a multimessenger source may be an even more elusive needle in the cosmic haystack.

Key explained that, right now, it’s hard for LIGO to detect with precision from whence a source signal originates. When they detect a source they send an alert to about 60 electromagnetic astronomy partners and give them a general direction in which to look. In addition to the challenge of pinpointing the source, they also don’t really know what to look for. Key said their models aren’t very good, not yet anyway. Light from a source may have already passed, but there could be x-rays, gamma rays, afterglow, or shock waves under certain conditions.

Fortunately, LIGO is getting better. The addition of more Earth-based observatories will help better locate sources and discover collisions of neutron stars or stellar-mass black holes. Project LISA, scheduled to launch in 2029, will look for supermassive black hole collisions and “extreme mass ratio in-spirals” which occur when a little star or black hole falls into a big black hole. Pulsar timing arrays could detect when supermassive black holes collide in galaxy mergers. There’s even study of the cosmic microwave background to try to detect gravitational waves from early universe.

“Just like electromagnetic astronomy, different sources are detected by these different kinds of experiments,” Key said. “We need all these different kinds of gravitational-wave experiments to be able to study the gravitational-wave sky.”

The LIGO Scientific Collaboration includes more than a thousand scientists from 15 countries and 90 institutions. Four of the institutions are in Washington: The University of Washington, UW Bothell, Whitman College, and Bellevue College.

Unknown discoveries ahead

Key said it is an interesting time to be involved in the field as LIGO is just into its second observing run.

“We’re really going to be able to map out and explore the population of black holes in our universe,” Key said.

“We don’t know what we’ll discover, and that is always the story of a new astronomy,” she added. ”We do not know very much about black holes in general, and so this is a new way to study the universe and study what is out there. It will be very exciting!”

LIGO could discover new kinds of sources like cosmic strings, study supernovae, and maybe even lead to the detection of dark matter and dark energy.

“We are lucky we live in the era of gravitational-wave astronomy, and we hope soon that it will be the era of multimessenger astronomy,” Key concluded.

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Solstice sunset watch and LIGO info on our calendar this week

The calendar year is winding down, and astronomy clubs are hustling to get a last few events in before we plunge into 2017.

Rose City AstronomersThe Rose City Astronomers eschew their usual formal meeting for their annual holiday potluck at 6:30 p.m. Monday, December 19 at the OMSI auditorium in Portland. Leftovers from the event have traditionally been donated to a homeless shelter, and this year the astronomers are also collecting warm clothing for donations, figuring that astronomy folk may have a supply of such to bring comfort to those late-night sessions at the eyepiece.

The Eastside Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday, December 20 at the Lake Hills Library in Bellevue. NASA Solar System Ambassador John McLaren will give a talk about the history of scientific exploration of the Sun, and look ahead to future efforts to learn even more about our nearest star.

Seattle Astronomical SocietyThe Seattle Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, December 21 in room A102 of the Physics/Astronomy building on the University of Washington campus in Seattle. Joey Key, a professor at the University of Washington-Bothell, will talk about the next LIGO run searching for gravitational waves, which will also involve astronomical collaboration is search of an elusive “multimessenger source,” a signal that could be detected both in gravitational waves and electromagnetic radiation. Interesting stuff!

Vikings

VMMEPPThe Viking Mars Missions Education and Preservation Project plans an informal information session for 4 p.m. Tuesday, December 20 at the Hillsdale Library in Portland. This family-friendly event will feature artifacts from the Viking mission, activities for kids, and lots of information about Viking history. Check out our recent article and podcast about the project. The year end is a good time to lend a little financial support to this great history project, too!

Solstice sunset watch

Join Alice Enevoldsen of Alice’s Astro Info and watch the first sunset of winter at 3:45 p.m. Wednesday, December 20 at Solstice Park in West Seattle. The solstice is at 2:44 a.m. PST on Wednesday. Sunset that evening is officially listed as 4:20 p.m., but Enevoldsen says they’ve noted that it’s typically about ten minutes early because of the horizon at that spot. She gives a fun and informative presentation about the mechanics of the seasons, and is persistent about it—this will be her thirty-first seasonal sunset watch. That’s a lot of solstices and equinoxes! Come by even if it’s cloudy, because the Sun sometimes sneaks through anyway, but driving rain makes it a no-go.

Futures file

You can scout out future astronomy events on our calendar. The page also features a full schedule of planetarium and stage science shows at Pacific Science Center.

Up in the sky

The Ursid meteor shower peaks 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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Dava Sobel talk highlights week’s calendar

A talk by author Dava Sobel is the highlight of this week’s astronomy calendar. Sobel, whose new book is The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars (Viking, 2016) will speak at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, December 15 at Town Hall Seattle.

The book is the story of the contributions of women at the observatory who made major advancements in the science, often without getting proper credit or recognition. From Williamina Fleming, originally hired as a maid, who identified ten novae and more than three hundred variable stars to Dr. Cecilia Helena Payne-Gaposchkin, appointed as the first woman professor of astronomy at Harvard in 1956, this group of remarkable women disproved the notion that “the gentler sex” had little to contribute to human knowledge.

Tickets to Sobel’s talk are $5 and are available online.

Astronomy on Tap Seattle

December’s edition of Astronomoy on Tap Seattle will consist of three shows at the University of Washington Planetarium on Wednesday, December 14. The program will be a guided tour of the universe. Unfortunately, all of the seats for the three shows were snapped up quickly, but you might watch the AoT Facebook event page to see if any openings occur.

Public night in Pierce County

The Tacoma Astronomical Society plans one of its public nights for 7:30 p.m. Saturday, December 17 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. The indoor program will be a viewing of a movie about the Christmas star. If the weather is clear they’ll break out the telescopes for some observing, too.

Futures file

You can scout out future astronomy events on our calendar. The page also features a full schedule of planetarium and stage science shows at Pacific Science Center. Recently added events include:

Up in the sky

The Geminid meteor shower peaks this week, but will have to compete with the full Moon. The Sky This Week from Astronomy magazine and This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope offer more observing highlights for the week.

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Beatty tapped as keynoter for SAS annual banquet

Kelly Beatty, senior editor for Sky & Telescope magazine and a board member of the International Dark-Sky Association, will be the keynote speaker at the Seattle Astronomical Society‘s annual banquet. The event is scheduled for 5 p.m. Saturday, January 28, 2017 at the Swedish Club on Dexter Avenue North in Seattle.

unnamed-2Beatty, who specializes in planetary science and space exploration, will give a talk titled, “Pluto’s Amazing Story.” He’ll cover the history of the former ninth planet from predictions of its existence and its discovery by Clyde Tombaugh to its “demotion” to dwarf-planet status and the amazing new data from the New Horizons mission.

Reservations for the event are available online now for members of the Seattle Astronomical Society, and will be made available to nonmembers beginning January 11. The member price is $45, and the nonmember price will be $60. There are two good reasons to join SAS right there: save a seat at the banquet now, and save $15. Annual dues are just $35, so you’d be almost halfway to paying it off!


(Disclaimer: While I’m a member of the Seattle Astronomical Society and often cover its events and activities, Seattle Astronomy is not formally affiliated with the society.)

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Club events highlight the week’s astro-calendar

There are several astronomy club events and a star party on the calendar for the coming week.

The Tacoma Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, December 6 in room 175 in Thompson Hall on the University of Puget Sound campus. Program information had not been published as of this writing.

BPAAThe Battle Point Astronomical Association has a big evening of events planned for Saturday, December 10. The monthly “parent-kid date night” from BP Astro Kids will be all about stellar DNA, as participants learn about the spectral makeup of common elements and how we know what the sun is made of. They’ll also create and decorate their very own take home spectrometers to investigate everything from hydrogen emission lines to the spectrum of light bulbs at home. Two shifts of events start at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. at the association’s Edwin Ritchie Observatory on Bainbridge Island. Following at 7:30 p.m. BPAA puts on a planetarium show “Navigating by the Stars.” Before GPS was invented people found their way around by the positions of the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars. Blue water cruiser Frank Petrie will talk about the basics of navigating with a sextant, and why it’s harder than Hollywood would have you believe. The show starts at 7:30 p.m. Astronomical observing will follow if the weather is good.

The monthly Covington Community Park star party will be held at—where else?—Covington Community Park at 6 p.m. Friday, December 9. The popular suburban star party is a joint venture between the Seattle, Tacoma, and Boeing Employees’ astronomical societies.

Futures file

You can scout out future astronomy events on our calendar. The page also features a full schedule of planetarium and stage science shows at Pacific Science Center.

Up in the sky

Uranus and Neptune can be a little difficult to find, but it will be a little easier this week because both will appear close to the Moon, Neptune on Tuesday and Uranus on Friday. The Sky This Week from Astronomy magazine and This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope offer more observing highlights for the week.

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