Coronavirus and social distancing cannot deprive us of our enjoyment of astronomy. One can make the case that the best way to enjoy the hobby is with a telescope in your back yard in the middle of the night, as noted in my most recent tweet of Sky and Telescope’s weekly update of stuff to see.
What better way to practice social distancing that going out by yourself with a telescope in the middle of the night?! Here's what you'll see in the sky this week! https://t.co/NxENojnQPx Via @SkyandTelescope
On the other hand amateur astronomy is also a highly social endeavor. There are jillions of astronomy clubs all over the country with members devoted to putting on interesting meetings and to sharing their enjoyment of the heavens with their neighbors. The members of these clubs also rely on each other as answerers of how-to questions. Our last post was about Goldendale Sky Village, which is being designed as a spot in which it will be easy for members to observe the night sky together.
In the coronavirus era the comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko has been replaced on astronomy’s hardest-to-spell list by the word “canceled.” As astronomy groups call off their events one sees this AP-Style preferred spelling about as often as “cancelled,” which most dictionaries list as OK, too. Grammar police from both sides tend to weigh in with little impact.
Calling the whole thing off
Regardless of the spelling, a great majority of official astronomy events are being canceled these days. Part of the challenge is that many astronomy organizations hold their gatherings at schools or colleges, libraries, museums, and other sorts of places that are now buttoned up. Just this morning Washington governor Jay Inslee announced a ban on any confab of more than 50 people, and said even smaller meetings had to meet strict guidelines for hygiene and social distancing. Officials urged people to avoid any “unnecessary interactions” at least for the next couple of weeks. As much as I love them, astronomy events probably fall into that category.
A couple of major events are planning to go virtual. The Northeast Astronomy Forum (NEAF), perhaps the hobby’s biggest trade show, is switching to a one-day online event set for April 4. The next meeting of the American Astronomical Society, scheduled for Madison, Wisconsin May 31 to June 4, is looking at moving from an on-site/in-person conference to a fully remote/virtual one.
Nevertheless we soldier on! We’ve got a little stretch of clear sky going, so social distance yourself and get out and enjoy it while it’s here. We’ll keep blogging it up and, once this virus is licked, we’ll see you at the next star party. In the meantime, wash your hands.
When we went on a road trip to a new place when I was a kid my dad would pick up a map from the nearest gas station. There were no gas stations on the way to the Moon, but the first astronauts to land there had a map anyway, thanks to the work of Harlan “Buzz” Reese and colleagues. His son, Tom Reese, talked about his father’s work at the most recent meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society.
“What I’m honored to share tonight are images mainly from our dad’s collection, which for more than 50 years was pretty much just stuffed in boxes and cardboard tubes, but we now think of them as artifacts,” Tom Reese said. His father, who passed away in 2013, worked for many years at the Aeronautical Chart and Information Center (ACIC) in St. Louis. It was an office of the Air Force and was considered the premier mapping organization in the country. The elder Reese was a civilian who worked on the project creating charts of the Moon for NASA.
“They worked with the photographs from any source they could get, the best pictures that were available,” Reese said. That included images made by ground-based telescopes and lunar orbiters, and later photos shot by astronauts during Apollo missions. There was no image-editing software in the 1960s, but the folks at ACIC did have a cut-and-paste operation; they literally pieced together many of their charts by making copies of photographs, cutting them out, and building maps of larger areas as mosaics of many images. Some of them were huge, room-sized. They’d sometimes build these maps on the entire floor of a large room and walk around in stocking feet so as not to damage them too much. The charts include handwritten notes and tell-tale identification of the people who made them.
“My dad’s smeared fingerprints and careful mapping marks are also a down-to-Earth tribute to the other 400,000 human beings whose efforts made the journey possible,” Reese said.
Reese, an independent journalist, photographer, author, artist and teacher whose work as a newspaper and magazine photojournalist was nominated for Pulitzer Prizes during his career at The Seattle Times, spoke of a sense of awe and wonder when making a photograph of the Moon.
“I think it was with the same sense of wonder that my dad saved all these things that were actually scraps of his work,” Reese said, “but I also think he thought of these as a gift to be shared.”
Part of that wish came true this year, when several of the charts were included in the Destination Moon exhibit that wrapped up earlier this month at the Museum of Flight. Reese said he hopes the entire collection can some day wind up in a place where it can continue to tell a part of the story of the Apollo missions.
It’s amazing to think that the lunar orbiters that preceded Apollo were shooting photos using film, processing that film in space and then sending the images to Earth via radio. Today’s digital cameras on spacecraft capture far greater resolution. For the cartographers who mapped the Moon there was a good deal of art to go with the science.
“On the early maps of the Earth you can see where they would come to the limit of the known world and simply mark down ‘terra incognita’ or ‘beyond this point there be dragons,’” Reese said. “In the early mapping of the Moon precision was key, of course. But the audacity to fire three men packed into a rattling tin can to an unexplored world also required calculating on the unforeseen.” The mappers analyzed all of the data they had to give accurate representation of the sizes of and distances between lunar features so that the maps would be useful guides.
“Spacecraft with weapons in space are still pretty far in the future,” Dawson said. “We’re talking decades.”
Such a conflict would likely destroy every spacecraft in orbit, according to Dawson.
“That kind of a battle would end up disastrous for everyone involved,” she said. “The war would be over in a matter of minutes if that happend just outside of Earth orbit, and it would affect us on Earth for decades.”
That’s not necessarily what is preventing it from happening.
“Space is a very harsh theater of war,” Dawson said, listing the lack of air, extreme temperatures, radiation, and space junk as just the start of the problems such a war would face.
“Access [to space] is expensive and technologically challenging,” Dawson said. “It’s not like we would choose to go to outer space to engage in a war. It’s just that we have spacecraft up there that we all depend on, and so it is an area that is intriguing to countries that don’t agree with each other.”
The likely nature of war in space
War in space would be more subtle than a bunch of big explosions. A variety of weapons, including Earth-to-space, space-to-Earth, and space-to-space varieties are possible. Lasers, missiles, and various “kill vehicles” or “jammers” could be employed to foul up orbiting assets. Space debris itself could be a weapon. Take a look at this video from NASA:
Earth is at the center of the graphic, and each of the dots represent spacecraft, whether working or not. There’s a lot of junk out there. The Kessler syndrome is a scenario proposed in 70s by NASA scientist Donald Kessler; it posits that if there’s a dense enough amount of debris in space, then one collision or explosion could create a chain reaction of other colllisions or explosions.
“Pretty soon all you have is debris out there and you can’t get through it,” Dawson said. That would make it extremely difficult to operate existing satellites or launch new ones.
We sometimes don’t realize how much we depend on space systems. Wrecking all of those satellites would mess up a lot of things, from our GPS navigation systems to television signals, data exchange, air traffic control, communication systems, and weather forecasting. It would be a total pain.
Though a number of different entities are tracking space debris, it continues to get more challenging. Space X plans to launch 12,000 cube sats to create broadband service; these smaller objects are harder to track. There are unanswered questions about who owns space debris and who can or should clean it up.
“Major spacefaring nations have all been increasingly aggressive with military and surveillance operations in space,” Dawson added.
Preventing war in space
Dawson said the notion of preventing war in space is simple on its surface. It’s the same as preventing war on Earth. You use diplomacy, establish rules of conduct, and operate with openness and cooperation. She said we need more detail than is included in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, a United Nations effort signed by more than 100 nations that set ground rules for peaceful exploration of space, and we need to figure out if and how existing international law applies to space. It’s all easier said than done.
“The international part of it is the difficult part,” Dawson said. The US has recognized its vulnerabilities in space and is working to protect its own assets, but other countries are doing their own thing.
“I try to be hopeful, but I think the international part of it is the biggest challenge,” Dawson said.
The maps have grown to have quite a few sites on them. The northwest map is up to about 70, and the Seattle-area map has a stargazer’s dozen.
Our events calendar is a pretty robust listing of astronomy events in the region. It’s helpful that we can pull events directly from the calendars of several different organizations, including the Seattle, Tacoma, Palouse, and Island County astronomical societies. Some others take a little more legwork. For example, we recently discovered a listing of events about exoplanets that will be running at the Jefferson County Library through early October, and the Southern Oregon Skywatchers shared a list of pending events in their neck of the woods.
One of the coolest events of the year is about the come to an end. The Destination: Moon exhibit about the Apollo 11 mission has been at the Museum of Flight since April and will be closing next week, September 2. The Apollo 11 command module “Columbia” is the centerpiece of the exhibit, but there are a great many other interesting items on display as well. (Check out our article about the exhibit when it was in St. Louis last year, and our preview of the MOF version.)
For the final days of Destination: Moon the museum will offer extended hours and discount pricing. Normal hours for the museum are 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. daily. From August 28 through September 2 they’ll stay open from 5-9 p.m. and admission will be discounted during those late hours: $15 for adults and seniors and $10 for youth. Destination: Moon is a separate, $10 ticket; you have to arrive at or after 5 p.m. to qualify for the discount.
We always say that we comb the Internet for astronomy events so that you don’t have to! Please feel free to share any events by your club or organization.
Apollo 11 command module Columbia. Photo: Eric Long, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution
The long-awaited exhibit Destination Moon: The Apollo 11 Mission, opens April 13 at The Museum of Flight. The centerpiece of the exhibit is the mission’s command module Columbia, which is on the last leg of a two-year, four-city journey that is the historic spacecraft’s first since being parked at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. in 1971. The Columbia took astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the Moon for the first Moon landing. The exhibit will be here through September 2, including the date of the 50th anniversary of the giant leap, July 20, 2019.
While some common elements of the exhibit have traveled to all four cities—Destination Moon stopped in Houston, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh prior to its Seattle trip—each museum has been able to put its own spin on the artifacts. At the Museum of Flight, Destination Moon represents an expansion of the Apollo exhibit that opened in May two years ago. (Here’s our article about the exhibit.) It’s here the the Museum of Flight has an edge, with the exhibit including two enormous F-1 engines that powered the launch of Apollo missions. Other museum artifacts are also included, as is a gallery about the legacy of Seattle-area industry, astronauts and engineers to the space program.
Your correspondent with the Apollo 11 command module Columbia in August 2018 at the St. Louis Science Center. Photo: Greg Scheiderer
Visitors can get pretty close to Columbia, but they can’t go inside. However, they can do so virtually through an interactive 3-D tour created from the Smithsonian’s high-resolution scans of the interior of the spacecraft.
The exhibit promises to be extremely popular. A free preview for museum members last weekend was well attended, and a host of special events for the first weekend are likely to draw many visitors. We were fortunate to see the exhibit in St. Louis last summer; it was near the end of the run and it wasn’t at all crowded. Waiting might be a good option if seeing it early and often isn’t a big deal for you!
The Columbia is a big deal artifact. I spent hours with it in St. Louis and a good bit of time at the member preview this week. Don’t miss this great opportunity to see a super cool piece of space history!
The helmet and gloves used by Buzz Aldrin when he walked on the Moon, from the Destination Moon exhibit in St. Louis. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.
With less than a month to go until its opening, the Destination Moon exhibit about the Apollo 11 mission is taking shape at the Museum of Flight. Museum staff announced in a news release this week that the helmet and gloves used by astronaut Buzz Aldrin during his walk on the Moon have been installed in the space. The centerpiece of the exhibit is the Apollo 11 command module Columbia, but it will feature many other artifacts of the historic mission.
I saw the exhibit when it was in St. Louis last summer (story here) and it was great. It opens at the Museum of Flight April 13 and runs through September 2, a stretch of dates that includes the 50th anniversary of the July 20, 1969 “giant leap for mankind.”
There will be some differences in the exhibit from when it was in St. Louis. For example, the Museum of Flight release notes that the helmet and gloves display will include a magnifying glass so that museum visitors can read the to-do list on Aldrin’s glove reminding him of his tasks during the moonwalk. A key item on the list: get a photograph of a boot print on the Moon!
Shelley Sterns-Blackburn, ELY, Inc, and Lisa Young, Conservator at National Air and Space Museum make some final adjustments to spacesuit gloves worn by Buzz Aldrin while on the surface of the Moon. Aldrin’s helmet and visor are in place on the left. Photo Ted Huetter/The Museum of Flight.
Tickets for all dates of the exhibit are now on sale on the Museum of Flight website. Tickets are $10, or $5 for museum members, and must be purchased in addition to museum general admission, which is $25 for adults, $21 for seniors, and $16 for youth. Kids under 4 years of age are admitted free.
In addition, there is a free member preview of the exhibit scheduled for Sunday, April 7, which sounds like an excellent reason to join up today. Several free days are planned during the run of the exhibit, though no details on those have yet been published.
When I saw the exhibit at the St. Louis Science Center I went on a weekday afternoon and there were no lines or crowds; I just walked up and bought a ticket. Weekends might be a different story.
NASA turned 60 on October 1, 2018 and last weekend the Museum of Flight hosted a talk by the agency’s chief historian, Bill Barry, as part of the anniversary celebration. Since we all know about the Moon landing, the space shuttle program, explorations of the planets, the Hubble Space Telescope, the International Space Station, and various NASA research and discoveries, Barry focused his talk on six things you may not know about NASA.
#6: NASA science data saved us from disaster
In a day and age when there’s significant distrust of science, it’s interesting to note NASA’s role in solving a difficult environmental problem. Researchers as early as the late 1950s noticed that there was a depletion of ozone in the atmosphere above the South Pole, but it was difficult to document.
NASA chief historian Bill Barry gave a talk at the Museum of Flight Oct. 6, 2018 celebrating the 60th anniversary of the creation of the agency. Photo: Greg Scheiderer
Barry explained that NASA used the Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer (TOMS) on the Nimbus 7 weather satellite to confirm and map the hole in the ozone.
“It was pretty clear that the ozone hole was big and getting bigger,” Barry said, and that got people’s attention. Scientists postulated that the ozone depletion was caused by chemical reactions with chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) such as refrigerants and spray-can propellants, but again it was tough to prove. Observations made from NASA’s ER-2 aircraft and DC-8 Flying Laboratory eventually confirmed that the CFCs were the culprit.
This led to an amazing act of international cooperation on an environmental issue. In the Montreal Protocol in 1987 nations agreed to phase out CFCs and other ozone depleting substances. It’s working; Barry noted that the ozone is gradually recovering.
“Demographers suggest that this action saved us at least two million cases of skin cancer,” since then, he said.
#5: NASA almost didn’t happen
At the dawn of the space age, after Sputnik, the military became keenly interested in spy satellites and possible space weaponry. US Secretary of Defense Neil McElroy created the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), which later became the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, with the aim of collaborating with academic, industry, and government partners on military programs involving space.
Hugh Dryden was director of NACA from 1947 until NASA was formed in 1958. Photo: NASA
In the meantime over at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) director Hugh Latimer Dryden had pushed the committee’s research agenda toward high-speed flight and space research. In January 1958 he wrote a key report suggesting that space efforts be a collaboration between the DOD, NACA, National Academy of Science, research institutions, universities, and industry. That’s pretty close to the ARPA mission, with a civilian bent.
Barry said that within about a month of the issuance of Dryden’s report, President Dwight Eisenhower went along with it, and sent Congress proposed legislation creating the National Aeronautics and Space Agency. Congress soon approved it.
In the early days of the collaboration there was still arm wrestling over control. A memo from Eisenhower directed that NASA would run all programs “except those peculiar to or primarily associated with military weapons systems or military operations.” The DOD took a broad definition of that—figuring putting people in space was military and so that was within their bailiwick. Eisenhower intervened to clarify that the legislation made NASA a largely civilian organization.
“This key decision on Eisenhower’s part was really important,” Barry said. “NASA in some ways has become the world’s space agency, one of the most positive aspects of US international relations,” and the civilian nature of the agency is vital to that.
#4: NASA is a serial creator of new industries
Barry said smartphone cameras with CMOS chips may be as good or better than DSLR cameras, so we put it to the test. Smartphone pic is on the left. Problems may be due to operator error! Photos: Greg Scheiderer
There’s a common belief that Tang, Teflon, and Velcro were creations of the space program. Barry said those aren’t correct, but a lot of other stuff has NASA origins. Excimer lasers developed for ozone detection proved useful for laser surgery, for example, and the complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) chips in your smartphone camera were originally developed to build a better camera for space probes. Oddly, those never flew, but they’ve taken off here on Earth. NASA’s annual Spinoff magazine highlights stuff that originated in the space program.
Beyond those, NASA has spun off entire industries. Weather satellites and communication satellites (now a $2 billion/year industry) came from NASA. Under COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) companies such as SpaceX and Boeing are building crewed vehicles and plan to begin testing next year.
“We hope by the end of next year to be launching US astronauts from Florida again up to the International Space Station and paying American companies to do it for us,” Barry said.
#3: NASA revolutionized the understanding of the universe
One’s first response to that is, “Well, duh!” but Barry said it’s easy to take for granted what has happened over the last 60 years.
“We don’t often think about how much things have changed since 1958 when NASA was created,” he said. Sixty years ago otherwise sane people thought there may be civilizations and canals on Mars and dinosaurs on Venus. They figured the outer solar system was just boring ice. There were nine planets; we now know that virtually every star has at least one. We had no idea the Van Allen Belts existed. Now we have a photo of the cosmic microwave background.
#2: Why did we go to the Moon?
President John F. Kennedy wasn’t actually that big on space; in early speeches after he was sworn in he kept proposing that the US and Soviet Union team up on space projects.
The Soviet Union wasn’t too keen on that. They were using the success of their space program to proclaim the superiority of their system and to recruit allies in a world that had been “decolonized” after World War II. The Soviets were winning the propaganda war. JFK wanted a way to beat them without breaking the bank.
Trailing in the game, Kennedy moved the goalposts and declared the race to the Moon.
“The Soviet Union’s success in space was a major strategic strategic problem for the United States,” Barry explained, “so investing money in going to the Moon was a way to prove that the western, capitalist model of government was, in fact, at least as good as if not better than the Soviets.”
#1: The race to the Moon was closer than you think
JFK made his speech to Congress about setting the goal of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” in May of 1961, shortly after Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. It wasn’t until years later, with President Lyndon Johnson pushing the goal as Kennedy’s legacy, that the Soviets took notice.
“It’s really obvious by the summer of 1964 that the US was serious about going to the Moon and had the political will and the money to make it happen,” Barry said.
The Soviet response was the Zond program. They wouldn’t orbit the Moon, but would instead fling their spacecraft around it and then return to Earth.
The Soviets made five Zond launches in 1968 had a few successes. Zond 5 in September took some tortoises and other life forms along and landed back on Earth, though in the Indian Ocean rather than on land as intended. Zond 6 made the trip and landed on target in Kazakstan, but its heat shield failed. Tests weren’t going well on the N-1 rocket, the Soviet counterpart to the Saturn V that would be their way of launching people to the Moon. In December 1968 Apollo 8 and three US astronauts orbited the Moon.
“It was pretty clear they weren’t going to get their guys on the surface of the Moon before we did,” Barry said. But the Soviets didn’t give up. They sent up a Hail Mary.
The Soviets had been launching Luna spacecraft since the late 1950s, and in the space of six months they cobbled together a robotic craft that would land on the Moon, collect a few rocks, and bring them to back Earth.
A first launch attempt failed, but Luna 15 blasted off three days before Apollo 11. The Eagle got to the Moon first. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin did their Moon walk and were catching a few winks before launching to return to the command module Columbia.
“While they’re sleeping in the lunar module the Soviets fired the retro rockets on Luna 15 and landed on the surface of the Moon. It crashed,” Barry said. But he added that if it had landed successfully, the Soviets may well have been able to get their Moon sample back to Earth first.
“The race to the Moon ends July 20, 1969 after the first Moon walk actually happened,” he marveled. “It was that close.”