Monthly Archives: February 2012
I just read a story on space.com today that reports asteroid 2011 AG5 has a chance to smash into Earth in the year 2040. The asteroid was discovered in January of 2011 and was observed through September of that year. The piece of space rock is 460 feet (140 meters) wide and could pass close enough to Earth to pose a threat to us on the surface. While the odds of an impact are just 1 out of 625, any non-zero probability impact is closely monitored by the international astronomy community. On its closest pass in 2023 2011 AG5 could shave by our planet at a distance of just 0.02 astronomical units (the distance between Earth and the sun), bringing it to a close shave of just 1.86 million miles. The probability of impact is expected to decrease as scientists observe more orbits of the asteroid but it is still deserving of high levels of attention.
That got me thinking. What are some of the closest shaves, or impacts, we’ve had with asteroids? I’ve put together a list of ten asteroid collisions and near misses. Enjoy and be horrified!
10) Comet Lexell passed within 0.0151 AU (1.4 million miles) of Earth on July 1, 1770 making it the closest comet pass by the Earth
9) Asteroid 2011 MD passed by Earth at an altitude of just 7,500 mi. which is roughly the diameter of the Earth, the rock was between 10 and 45 meters and it was estimated that it would have burned up in the atmosphere and only produced a few impacting fragments
8) A meteoroid named 2011 CQ1 flew by the Earth at a staggering distance of only 3,400 miles. It was discovered on the same day as its closest pass to Earth. The rock was only four feet wide so it posed absolutely no threat to life on Earth
7) A mere two months ago asteroid 2005 YU55, a 400 meter wide rock, passed within 201,700 mi. (0.85 lunar distances)
6) Meteoroid 2008 TC3 entered Earth’s atmosphere on October 7, 2008 and exploded over the Nubian Desert in Sudan. It was the first object to be tracked as it approached the surface.
5) The event nicknamed “The Great Daylight 1972 Fireball” produced a meteoroid that passed a mere 35 miles from the Earth’s surface. The meteoroid entered the atmosphere over Utah and skipped back out over Alberta, Canada. The meteoroid was 57 meters wide and could have detonated an explosion of up to 2 kilotons had it impacted the surface.
4) 1989 FC was a 300 meter wide asteroid that passed within 0.00457 AU of Earth. While it never came within the orbital radius of the moon, it passed through the exact location of the Earth six hours earlier which drew many a sigh of relief.
3) The Barringer Crater, also known as Meteor Crater, is an impact crater in Arizona where a 50 meter meteoroid hit the planet approximately 500,000 years ago. The crater is 0.737 miles across and 570 feet deep.
2) The Tunguska Event was an extremely powerful explosion that occurred over the region of Siberia in Russia in 1908. It is believed that the explosion resulted from the airburst of a large meteoroid or comet just 3-6 miles above the surface. The fragment never hit the ground but is still regarded as an impact because it released an explosion equivalent to 10-15 megatons of TNT that was 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
1) Number one simply has to be the asteroid that formed the Chicxulub Crater on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico 65 million years ago. The 10 kilometer wide object that hit the Earth there left an impact crater 120 miles in diameter and killed the dinosaurs and approximately 70% of life on Earth. The impact packed a punch to the tune of 96 tetratons of TNT. WOW.
In my home state, the small, over-populated state of Maryland, we are not really that well known for astronomy. Maryland has a population of about 5.8 million people encompassing only 12,407 sq. mi., making it the 5th densest state in terms of population per square mile. All those people crammed into such a small area makes for horrible stargazing conditions across most of the state. If you look at this light pollution map you would have to drive at least an hour to get from Baltimore to the nearest patch of yellow either up north or across the Chesapeake Bay. Our biggest (and perhaps only) claim to major astronomical fame is probably the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD. That being said, I had no idea that one of the more important astronomical observations in recent history was made out in western Maryland.
On April 18th, 1972 amateur astronomer and Deep Creek State Park employee Gus Johnson was out with his telescope giving a tour of M100, the Virgo Cluster, to the minister of his church when he spotted an unusually bright star in the cluster. He didn’t remember seeing it ever before or recalling it from any of the charts he used. Mr. Johnson went back out the next night to observe the strange star again and compared it to several charts of M100. There was nothing that bright to be found in that specific region of the cluster. He immediately called the American Association of Variable Star Observers and alerted them of a possible supernova. The AAVSO sent the word out and it was soon confirmed by Asiago and McGraw-Hill observatories. Over the next several years with the use of powerful instruments such as the NASA Chandra X-ray telescope, scientists believe that Mr. Johnson witnessed the birth of a baby black hole. That would make Mr. Johnson just the third person ever to have discovered a black hole outside of our galaxy by direct observation.
Mr. Johnson, now 73, said in an interview with the Washington Post in 2010 that he prefers to use smaller telescopes and “non-computerized” systems. He owns a dozen scopes ranging from 1.6″ to 8″ so he by no means is on the cutting edge of telescope technology but he considers himself privileged to have observed something so rare and completely by accident. He is proud of his discovery and hopes to make another eventually, but he isn’t holding his breath.
Mr. Johnson works as a volunteer at the Deep Creek Park in Garrett County, Maryland. There he leads various astronomy programs, does maintenance work, and leads nature walks. He is an avid reader of Sky & Telescope magazine and has a stash of 55 years worth of issues at his home! He still uses the chart from the February 1954 issue for finding galaxies in the Coma-Virgo cluster. My hat is off to you Mr. Johnson, you’ve done us Marylanders proud! May you continue to point your telescopes skyward for many years to come!
Since yesterday was the 50th anniversary of John Glenn’s historic spaceflight that made him the first American to orbit the Earth it got me thinking. We’ve come a long way from 1962. A long way. We’ve sent men to the moon, send robots to other planets, gazed at the oldest known parts of the universe, and have sent spacecraft to all of the planets in our solar system. You might have seen the meme that’s gone around the internet that has a picture of Neil Armstrong standing next to the Eagle lunar excursion module that says “Your phone has more computing power than Apollo 11”. While that’s true, your smart phone is more advanced than the Apollo era spacecraft, it has a bitter aftertaste to it…Despite all the advances in space technology and human technology in general, the United States is currently unable to send humans into space…at all.
I believe NASA and our government have really dropped the ball in letting the Space Shuttle retire. I wrote about this in an earlier post but I think it is embarrassing that the United States, the once proud leader in manned space exploration, is currently unable to send a single man to space. President Kennedy would be appalled at our lack of interest in manned space exploration! I know that people much smarter than me state that Shuttle was a superb craft that did everything we hoped it would do, and more, but that it did have its limitations. Shuttle was not designed for trips out of low Earth orbit. The Apollo crafts were. Shuttle represented a shift in focus from NASA from manned exploration to scientific observation. We had achieved the goal of the late President Kennedy and it was time to move on to the next step. While some of the most amazing discoveries in space were made during Shuttle’s reign, we were limited by its flight capabilities. It did not pack a multi-stage rocket system to propel it all the way to the moon without having to refuel. NASA was, however, working on developing a new manned deep space vehicle before the announcement of Shuttle’s retirement was made. The Constellation program was supposed to be the successor to the Apollo program with expanded capabilities. Constellation was supposed to be our return to the moon, the ISS, and beyond. The program was cut in 2010 by President Obama. Instead, now we have the Space Launch System (SLS) on the books. It is similar to Constellation but it integrates all the components into one vehicle much like an Apollo craft. The problem is that valuable time and resources have been wasted in the development of Constellation and SLS when there should have been clear leadership and vision from the government from the beginning. The estimated first SLS mission isn’t until 2017 and a manned mission wouldn’t be possible until 2025. By that time the ISS will likely have been decommissioned and sleeping in the Pacific, and with no definite plans to construct a new orbital station there could be no human presence in space for up to five years!
There seems to be a major lack of unified vision and planning going on at NASA and our federal government. The fact alone that we retired the Space Shuttle with no ready to go replacement is just woeful. So yes we’ve come very far in our understanding of space flight in the 50 years since John Glenn orbited the Earth. But we’ve also shown that we haven’t applied that knowledge to translate it into achievement…something that alarmingly lacking when compared with the Apollo days.
The relationship between science and faith is one of a friendship gone sour. The two used to be good friends who used to spur each other on to higher understanding. Early astronomers like Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler who were devout men of the Christian faith sought the mysteries of the cosmos to better understand the mind of God. Even Sir Isaac Newton himself after publishing Principia Mathematica believed that the tightly-bound universe governed by mechanics and gravity was an insight into the mind of God and the brilliance of creation. But over time science starting hanging out with other people and faith didn’t appreciate that much and got angry so they’re friendship became a bit testy. In the mid 17th century science and faith signed what you could call a “non-aggression treaty” to agree to not intrude into the other’s territory. For about 200 years science and faith were cordial at best as the Enlightenment gained momentum and the humanistic and materialistic culture of the 19th century took shape. For many it was Charles Darwin’s work The Origin of Species that introduced evolution and natural selection that was the final nail in the coffin of the relationship between science and faith.
It used to be said that God was the God of the gaps. Man used to wonder why it rained and so he said “God makes it rain” until we discovered that water vapor forms clouds that produce rain. We used to ask why the sun rises and sets every day so we said “God moves it from east to west”. Then we discovered that the planet rotates on its axis. Eventually human curiosity and scientific observation filled almost all the gaps so there was essentially no more need for God in human thinking and God was confined to the minds of pious men of faith who were labelled “dim-witted” and “afraid of progress”. By the end of the 19th century the thought of a divine being who had the ability to create and govern the universe was laughable to the vast majority of mainstream scientists and empirical evidence supposedly supported a universe that was un-ordered and chaotic and disproved the very idea of a creator. Then there were physicists such as the great Albert Einstein who (based on his theory of general relativity) believed more or less that God was creation itself, that the universe was more ordered and desinged than we could ever imagine that a Creator must be behind it. However, the Creator of Einstein’s mind was the creation itself. God was in the very stars, planets, nebulae, and black holes. Very different from the personal, and anthropomorphic God of the Bible was this belief that is sometimes referred to as Pantheism.
There are a few people like myself (I am not a scientist by any stretch of the imagination!) who still hold to the belief that science and faith are not enemies, in fact they are more closely related than you could possibly imagine. I can’t give a full discourse on why I believe this #1 because I am not as scientifically learned as required for such a proof and #2 because this is a blog, not a dissertation at Cambridge. I am a man of faith, faith in the God of the Bible I might add. I am equally fascinated in both science and faith. My faith tells me that humans are created in the likeness and image of God and as such we are gifted with a mind capable of understanding the world we live in. Not to exercise that gift, to stifle it, would in my mind be an insult to God. For the sake of brevity (I may have already violated it) I will outline just one reason why I believe science and faith are friends still. That reason is the theory of stellar and planetary formation known as accretion.
Accretion is the theory that stars and planets form from clouds of dust and gas that gravity causes to clump together to create a “runaway” effect of mass creation. I will just focus on planetary accretion for now. Once a star’s nuclear life has begun when hydrogen is fused into helium in the star’s core the outer elements are expelled and are thrown into an orbit around the new star. The chaos of the elements causes them to constantly bombard other elements at massively high speeds and they begin to clump together. The clumps get bigger and bigger as they begin to assert gravity of their own which attracts the smaller clumps and particle around them until a main bulge is created which is the skeleton of the new protoplanet. Over many millions of years this process continues until all the dust and gas has been either accreted or expelled from the newborn solar system. Accretion is not unlike a snowball being rolled down a snowy hill. The snowball is small at the top of the hill but as it rolls down it gathers more and more snow making it larger and larger. As it gets bigger and bigger the snowball has more surface area which allows it to gather more snow faster until it gets to the bottom as a huge and well-rounded snowball fit for a snowman. This is the theory that explains how our planet and the others in our solar system were formed billions of years ago when the Sun was an infant.
If you’ve hung in there with me so far here’s where I make the connection with my faith. In the Bible the book of Job is the story of a man named Job who is righteous before God and who has been blessed with prosperity and wealth. Job has many possessions, a large family, and he is respected in the community as an elder and a wise man who is learned of the ways of God. A conversation takes place between God and Satan where Satan is asking permission of God to test one of His people. God suggests Job who is righteous in all his ways. Satan claims that if he could just take away all his wealth and possessions Job will curse God. God grants Satan permission to do so. Job has every material blessing suddenly stripped away from him, he looses his flock and herd, his house is destroyed, all his children die, and Job is left with no claim to anything on the Earth. What ensues is a very lengthy discourse between Job and three of his friends about why this horrible calamity has happened to Job. They all suggest that Job must have sinned to bring such disaster and punishment upon himself, whereas Job questions God’s goodness because he knows his heart has always been upright before God. Near the end God Himself enters the discussion and directly questions Job for his accusations against God’s goodness and power. In chapters 38-39 God declares Himself as the One who caused creation to be and He declares His power over all the wonders of the Earth and the universe. In Job 38:37 God says something very interesting regarding His creative technique. It reads, “Who can number the clouds by wisdom? Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens, when the dust runs together into a mass and the clods stick fast together?” This sounds remarkably like the process of accretion! As far as we know, the ancient Hebrews had no knowledge of planetary formation so it is astonishing that God would say something like this to someone who would have no idea what He is talking about. I believe it is clear that the “waterskins of the heavens” is a reference to the planets which the ancient people would have thought were just stars. The dust that runs together into a mass sounds a lot like the accretion disk that forms around the newborn star which eventually becomes a planet or moon that “sticks fast together”.
To me this appears as clear evidence, not only that the Bible is more factual than most people could ever imagine, but that there are confirmations of our modern scientific knowledge in the Bible. This proves both that our understanding of the universe has gotten us closer to the mind of God and that there is a divine Creator who operates the universe by a skillfully crafted set of rules. The complexity and beauty of the universe is a testament to the unfathomable brilliance of God and His glory. As Psalm 19:1 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above (the expanse in Hebrew) proclaims His handiwork”. According to this knowledge my faith tells me that God created the universe and strictly governs it by a complex, yet beautiful set of laws that we are beginning to understand. How marvelous is the prospect of being able get a glimpse into the mind of God by discovering the laws by which the universe operates! Sadly, much of academia does not see it this way. They assert the power of man’s mind and give no thought to a creator. Let me close with another quote from Job. Job 32:7-8 says “I said, ‘Let days speak, and many years teach wisdom.’ But it is the spirit in man, the breath of the Almighty , that makes him understand.” God grants wisdom to all men, but it is the Spirit of God that allows us to understand the true meaning of our wisdom…that it all points back to God.
Last week NASA announced that it expects to concede lunar exploration to its oldest rivals Russia and perhaps soon China. Well they didn’t actually say that. But it can certainly be implied quite easily.
NASA has released its expectations for its 2013 budget, which will be about $59 million smaller than the current fiscal year. The proposed FY 2013 budget, which runs from October 2012-September 2013, will be NASA’s lowest level of funding in four years and will leave the agency rather flat-looking in 2013. While the proposed budget totals at $17.7 billion, a large amount of funds are likely to be shifted to suit the Obama administrations desires. Programs such as research for human spaceflight and commercial spaceflight are getting a 22% bump over the 2012 budget while only $1.5 billion will be allocated to the planetary sciences budget, which represents a 15% decrease from 2012. Planetary sciences is the mastermind behind planning for robotic missions to Mars such as the coveted sample-return mission to search for advance the search for signs of life on the red planet.
Funding for the next-gen manned spaceflight vehicles, the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, is due to receive $2.9 billion, 3% less than 2012. The Obama administration has expressed its desire for NASA to devote itself to research for landing astronauts on an asteroid and eventually Mars. While this is quite a lofty and admirable goal it completely leaves our closest neighbor out of the equation…the Moon.
The entire government seemingly doesn’t care that 2012 marks the 40th anniversary of the last manned moon mission. In fact, no human has left low-earth orbit since the Apollo 17 mission on December 7th, 1972. The furthest distance from Earth traveled by humans is still the Apollo 13 flight that took the craft to the lunar far side in an effort to save the ship and the crew after the crippling explosion on the service module. Since the first lunar landing in 1969 humans have only spent a mere couple of days in total elapsed time exploring the surface of the moon. All the moon landings have been American in case you work for the government and have forgotten.
With the Obama administration’s direction of the budget for 2013, it seems that the moon will play little or no part in the goals of the agency. Ever since the cancellation of the Constellation program in Obama’s first year manned lunar exploration has been on the back burner. Instead we are focusing on sending humans deeper into space than ever before, to Mars and beyond. While that’s not a bad thing it seems strange that we would so easily neglect our closest neighbor in space. Despite its proximity to our home we know so little about the moon. I find it sad that we’re overlooking the moon in favor of landing on an asteroid. Last September famous moon-lander Neil Armstrong and three other space experts including Apollo 17 moon lander Eugene Cernan told Congress that they were embarrassing the United States by cutting funding of lunar missions. I would have to agree. America once held an inspiring dominance on spaceflight and lunar capability but now that dominance is all but lost. We won the space race, we completed the challenge of President Kennedy to land a man on the moon and return him safely. Now we’ve completely forgot about what that feels like. In my lifetime I’ve never seen a human stand of the surface of another world, and I’m not likely to for at least another 13 years.
So here it is! The XT10i is all assembled and set up and ready to go! Only problem is it’s snowing outside…crap! Hopefully the weather will be better tomorrow night because I’m dying to take this baby out. Thanks to Company Seven Astro-Optics Division for getting me set up with this beautiful scope! That’s all for today. Cheers!
Did you catch the glorious (but somewhat ominous looking) moon last night?? If you stayed inside or worked late then you probably missed one of the coolest moon events of the year! We had two lunar phenomenon occur at once last night. The lunar disk was orange and it was very large. I left work around 5:40 and noticed it almost as soon as I got onto the road. Hanging low over the horizon was the massively enlarged orange glowing disk of the moon right in front of me! It made me think of the people in the cars around me who have probably never paid much attention to the moon before and how last night it was practically screaming for their attention. I imagined them seeing it and then texting someone and saying “what the hell’s wrong with the moon tonight?” Nothing was wrong with the moon, the question should be more along the lines of “what’s wrong with our atmosphere?”
There are two separate parts to the equation that makes our moon appear so huge and orange at the same time. One of them, the color, we can say with confidence that we understand why it happens. The part about its apparent size is still a mystery to us. From what we know about sunlight and our atmosphere we can say with relative confidence that we know why it appears orange, or even yellow, or red. The strange color happens when the moon is low over the horizon when it is further away from the Earth. The light that is being reflected off the lunar surface has to travel through more of the Earth’s atmosphere at this distance. Combine this with any irregularity in our atmosphere caused by pollution or the amount or dust or haze in our atmosphere and the light that we see gets distorted by the particles in the atmosphere. Usually the light we see reflected off the moon is white which is the combination of all the colors in the visible spectrum. Under last nights atmospheric conditions however, the light is diffused and only the particles with longer wavelengths are able to make it through to our eyes. Those longer wavelength colors are the reds, yellows, and oranges. As the evening progresses and the moon treks higher and higher into the sky the distance the light travels decreases so the light eventually reaches our eyes as the normal white we’re used to. If you were to watch the moon climb higher every hour you would see it gradually become more whitish as it rises and gets closer and closer to Earth.
As for the part about what makes it seem so huge at the horizon, that’s still not understood by humans. There are several different theories out there that date back to the days of Aristotle and Ptolemy but none of them have ever proven to be true. They vary from psychological factors and personal experience to more atmospheric theories about warped and distorted images that frankly go over my head so I won’t waste your time trying to explain them.
Theories and causes aside, the large orange full moon makes for quite a sight in the evening sky! Coming up next month on March 19th is what astronomers call a “super” full moon where the moon will be full at perigee (closest point in its elliptical orbit to Earth) which will make it about 14% larger than a non-perigee full moon. This is a pretty rare occurrence that hasn’t happened since 1993 so get your telescopes and filter screens ready to view that blindingly bright full moon!
Saturday was the big day for me. I was by far more excited about Saturday than the Super Bowl on Sunday (would not be true if my Ravens had been in it…). On Saturday my dad and I went down to Company Seven, the closest telescope dealer, in Laurel, MD to buy my XT8 telescope. Since it was my first time buying a scope I wasn’t sure what to expect from the store. I kind of figured that it would be run by a couple of geeks (which it was) but I did not expect the magnitude of their geekiness to be as high as it was! That is meant as a compliment to them of course! I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of being down there. The associate I spoke to seemed to know absolutely everything there was to know about Orion telescopes. I told him I was looking at the SkyQuest XT8 he immediately recommended that I consider the XT10 Intelliscope instead because it comes with one more eyepiece, has the computerized finder, takes in more light, and offers the best probability that I won’t have to upgrade to a better scope for quite a while…all for only an extra $200 or so. I was glad that he made that recommendation. Meanwhile he assured me that he never tries to upsell just for the sake of it and making money. Company Seven is subsidized by the government through NASA and has worked with them in the past on Hubble and various other projects so selling telescopes is not how they make their living. Their interest is purely in seeing the customer walk out of the store with the best telescope possible that suits his or her astronomy wants and needs or with a better understanding of the market so that their interest in astronomy can last a lifetime.
So I ended up selecting the XT10 Intelliscope over the XT8 SkyQuest based on the associate’s recommendation. I was very pleased with the purchase, which my dad and I decided to split. Overall, the total after the various accessories will come to around $1,200. I just have to wait about a week or two for them to assemble the scope and collimate it and make sure everything is working in perfect order. They charge an extra $95 to assemble it but that was money well spent in my opinion because there’s no way I want to risk messing something up and not having the scope work properly. I’m very excited to get my hands on the new scope and can’t wait to take it out on the first clear night!
Company Seven is a great place to buy a telescope! Whether you’re a first-timer or a seasoned pro, they’ve got everything covered from beginner scopes to very expensive eyepieces. They live and breathe telescopes and astronomy so they really know their stuff. Just tell them what you want out of a telescope and they can direct you to the perfect one in no time! I would highly recommend Company Seven for all your astronomical needs. www.companyseven.com
Very cool news today from Virgin Galactic! This year will see the final stages of the testing for the first commercial joyride into space. Ever since the Virgin Group-backed X-Prize winning ship “Spaceship One” became the first private aircraft to reach suborbital flight, we’ve been waiting for the announcement that civilians can finally pay for a ticket to space. Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said today that the two craft designed to take people to space are undergoing the final stages of their respective testing programs. The first craft, White Knight Two (WK2) has run over 75 test flights for WK2 and 16 glide flights for the actual spacecraft SpaceShipTwo. If you’re not familiar with the Virgin Galactic model of leaving the planet it has some large differences from how the boys over at NASA do it. It requires two aircraft to pull it off. The first craft, WhiteKnightTwo, is a huge jet-powered cargo plane that carries the actual spacecraft, SpaceShipTwo, under its belly. Both ascend to an altitude of about 35,000 feet before SS2 is dropped by WK2. After plunging for a few seconds WK2’s single booster engine ignites sending it into a 90° vertical climb away from the Earth. Once an altitude of 100,000 kilometers is reached the engines shut off and you’re now in space! The six passengers on board can then unbuckle and experience the weightlessness of suborbital space. When the craft is ready to descend SS2’s “feathered” wings raise to 90° to minimize the effects of re-entry while ascending through the atmosphere. Then just like the space shuttle, SS2 touches down on Space Port America’s runway in New Mexico.
The verdict from Whitesides is that final booster tests for SS2 will begin by the summer and full-scale launches will take place in the fall. If everything goes to plan (and it pretty much has so far) Virgin could be sending the first space tourists up by the spring of 2013! Virgin has already booked over 400 tickets for the first year and has collected $60 million in deposits already, representing $100 million of income. Tickets are moderately priced at $200,000 so that pretty much rules out all but the proverbial 1% from every participating in this amazing experience. But nonetheless, Virgin Galactic represents a huge milestone in humanity’s effort to expand the limits of our world and to use space in new and exciting ways. Hopefully the success of Virgin Galactic will usher in a wave to similar ventures that continue to push the envelope (and bring the price down).