Monthly Archives: June 2012
The need for a near-Earth asteroid hunting telescope is long overdue and now thanks to a private non-profit foundation called B612, Earth will have its first privately funded asteroid hunting telescope. The non-profit organization B612 is made up of scientists and ex-astronauts who thought it was prime time to deliver on tracking down Earths most menacing threat, large asteroids capable of producing an extinction level impact. The telescope will be called Project Sentinel and will be set in orbit around the sun with the primary task of mapping all of the near-Earth asteroids 140 meters or larger in diameter. Just for reference, a 140 meter asteroid collision would cause a 100-megaton explosion which would be the equivalent to dropping about 667 atomic bombs. That of course, is the lower limit. An asteroid larger than 140 meters would produce an explosion much bigger.
The Earth’s history is full of giant impacts, evidenced from the fact that there aren’t anymore dinosaurs to impact craters. It’s as if the planet has been crying out for us to build this telescope and we’ve finally heard its cries. Like Bugenhagen from Final Fantasy VII, we’ve heard the cries and we must try and save the planet if we can. Granted, we’re not facing a giant Sephiroth-summoned meteor the size of Pluto, but you get the picture if you’re old (or young) enough to know what I’m talking about.
Along with detecting potentially Earth-threatening asteroids, Sentinel will also be tasked with creating a dynamic map of the motion of these asteroids to determine the paths the asteroids will likely take in the future and how close they will come to Earth. The B612 have compared it to making the road map of America, instead they’re making the road map of the inner solar system. The early warning provided by this road map would give scientists sufficient time to plan deflection missions, years, or perhaps even decades! Current knowledge is that out of the estimated half million asteroids of the 140 meter or larger variety, only 10,000 of them have been detected and tracked. Clearly Sentinel will have its work cut out for it, but B612 is hopeful that once launched and inserted into orbit around the sun it will only take about five years to create the map.
Sentinel will be funded by a global fundraiser, a first for space technology. As B612 spokeswoman Diane Murphy says, “Our constituency is everybody” While the final cost is undisclosed it is estimated to be in the “couple hundred million” range according to B612 chairman and CEO Ed Lu. ”If you think about it, what we are is a small capital campaign” said Lu. ”At any given time in the United States, there’s probably a hundred fundraising campaigns larger than this … for symphony halls, museums, performing arts centers.” Surely I agree, but the tricky part would be convincing the ridiculously wealthy that they should part with their money to save the planet.
Project Sentinel will be based at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder, CO and data collection and analysis will be handled at the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Mass., and the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. The telescope will be launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, another private space venture. It is definitely exciting to see space and the technology that comes with it being opened up to private enterprise! There certainly is a future there, and a promising one at that. Here’s to an asteroid free future!
A couple weeks ago I had a very pleasant surprise while visiting my soccer bar in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. I was at Slaínte watching the United State’s first World Cup 2014 qualifier match and upon leaving I saw something I did not expect. A blue Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope on a fork mount was set up right on the brick steps of the south end of Broadway Square! I immediately told my friend and his brother that I’d meet them back at his house to play some FIFA but I absolutely had to check out this display. The telescope was an 8″ SCT and was owned by a man named Herman Heyn. Herman is an elderly man who brings his scope out on weekends whenever the weather is clear. He goes by the name of “Baltimore’s Street Corner Astronomer” and has been setting up his telescopes in Baltimore since 1987! He is rather well-known among Fells Point regulars and residents by his blue SCT scope with the words “HAV-A-LOOK” printed on the side of the optical tube. Herman delights in letting people peer into his scope and see sights such as Saturn, Jupiter, the moon, Venus, the Pleiades, and some of the Messier open clusters. Most of the passerby are intrigued by the telescope having never had the experience before. While talking with Herman, I watched about ten people look into the scope and they all had the typical wow-factor reaction. The object of the night’s observation was Saturn and the awestruck visitors were simply delighted to have seen Saturn for the first time in their lives! However, for every believer there is a doubter. Several people passing by tried to convince me it was a fake and that we were just looking at a picture of Saturn taped over the aperture. Those poor people. They’ve yet to experience the joy of gazing at a beautiful ringed planet almost one billion miles away.
While talking to Herman about our shared interest in astronomy I found out that he’d been interested in the subject since the 8th grade when his science teacher taught an astronomy lesson. I quickly developed a respect and admiration for Herman and his devotion to spreading the word about astronomy. His desire to spread his passion to random people is admirable and I wish there were more people like him in our hobby! After taking a quick peek at Saturn at about 130x I dropped the remaining couple dollars from my wallet into his donations hat and regrettably had to leave. I spent about 20 minutes talking with Herman and I left very encouraged by the encounter! I hope to go down to Fells Point again very soon and hopefully HAV-ANOTHER-LOOK! Check out Herman’s website at hermanheyn.com!
If there is one probe in the last decade that was by far the most under-appreciated and most deserving of worldwide acclaim it was the Huygens probe that landed on Saturn’s largest moon Titan back in 2005. Granted I was only sixteen year old at the time, but I don’t remember much being made about Huygens except by NASA. Admittedly nowadays, the things that excite NASA rarely, if ever, excite the average U.S. citizen. What a shame that is. I know it’s rather daft to compare the 1969 Moon landing with the Huygens mission but the spirit of the first moon landing was surely present within NASA when Huygens touched down on Titan. The mission was historic for several reasons. It was the first time a man-made probe had landed on a moon. It was, and still is, the most distant body a man-made probe has landed on. Huygens also had great scientific value also from the brief glimpse it got of the surface of the alien moon. It was the first time we had ever touched down on a world that was truly “alien”, in that we had little to no idea what to expect.
Huygens was part of a mission to Saturn that was 22 years in the making. The Cassini spacecraft was the main probe that would visit Saturn for the first time since Voyager 1 passed by in 1980. One moon in particular caught the attention of NASA during its Saturnian encounter, Titan. Titan is Saturn’s largest moon and bears a striking similarity to Earth. It has a dense atmosphere. The first images of Titan showed the famous ‘thin blue line” that shows the presence of an atmosphere. As the picture below shows, Titan’s atmosphere looks incredibly like our own atmosphere when seen from space. From that point on NASA resolved that it would eventually send a probe there.
The Cassini probe was launched on October 15, 1997 and arrived at Saturn on July 1, 2004. The European Space Agency built Huygens probe was carried along with Cassini and during its first approach of Titan jettisoned the tiny probe on December 25, 2004. It took another 20 days for Huygens to reach Titan but on January 14, 2005 NASA has finally achieved its goal of sending a probe to Titan. It took two and a half hours for Huygens to descend through Titan’s atmosphere and took hundreds of images from its Descent Imager/Spectral Radiometer. Once below the haze and clouds Titan revealed a surface that was very Earth-like in many ways. Large mountains and hills covered with a lacework of what looked like streams and runoff flows of some kind of liquid, and even a shoreline of massive bodies of liquid. It was later determined that the bodies of liquid were not water since the surface of Titan is a frigid -179°C. The only element known to exist as a liquid at that extreme temperature is methane. Methane also exists as a solid and a gas on Titan, the same way water exists as a solid, liquid, and gas on Earth. The discovery revealed that the same way that Earth has a hydrological cycle, Titan has a methanological cycle. There are vast lakes and oceans of liquid methane which evaporate and form methane clouds. There is also even methane rain on Titan that falls in huge, slow moving rain drops due to the low gravity. Life as we know it couldn’t exist on Titan, but if we were to find even single-cell organisms or bacteria growing there it would cause us to radically re-think our understanding of biology and the possibility of alien life.
Long story short, Huygens was a huge success and tons of extremely valuable scientific data was produced from the tiny little probe that was the caboose of Cassini for six years. After the success of Huygens there should have been headline news stories about it on the 6 o’clock news across the world and front page news in all the newspapers. There should have been parades celebrating the historic landing from New York to Hong Kong. But alas, the world doesn’t get excited about space anymore. Huygens will go down as one of mankind’s most successful missions as well as one of the most under-rated mission of all time.
For your viewing pleasure here are some of NASA/ESA’s images received from Huygens during its descent and once it touched down. Enjoy.
Yes that’s right! A little over 24 hours remain until the most spectacular astronomical event of the year! However, make sure you check the weather forecast for your area before venturing out to watch the transit. The entire east coast and much of the southeast of the USA could be blanketed by showers and overcast skies most of the day tomorrow. If you’ve been building up your excitement for the past several months like I have, start to release that excitement because there is a strong possibility that as much as 75 percent of the country won’t be able to see the transit due to bad weather. Even though the transit is over 24 hours away, as I watch the grey clouds roll in I’m beginning to get that deflating feeling like I had a Venus-sized balloon of excitement for the transit and now someone is rapidly letting all the air out of that balloon.
Rain or shine I’m going to be watching the weather minute by minute to find out what’s going on. Don’t abandon your plans quite yet. You really never know with the weather. There may be a break in the clouds long enough to watch the ingress of the planet. Regardless, I tested my homemade solar filter yesterday morning and I must say that it works to perfection! I opted to make one myself instead of buying an expensive one from a vendor. I used the visual density Baader Solar film from Astro-Physics and constructed a housing for it.
The resulting image was spectacular! Even though it was hard to get a full image of the sun on my phone’s camera I could still see it perfectly through the 25mm eyepiece. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that the aperture is now offset and a lot smaller than the normal aperture. A great deal of detail could be seen on the sun such as sunspots 1497, 1496, 1493, and 1494, as well as a strange black smudge near the center of the disk which I’m not sure about. The resulting image is much dimmer than the sun funnel technique and I think provides much better contrast on the surface for defining sunspots. Regardless of whether I can view the transit, I’m very pleased with my filter and hope to get lots of use out of it. Heck, I only used a small bit of the Baader film so I can make more if I want!
My fingers are crossed for good weather and if you’re planning on viewing the transit best of luck to you as well! Clear skies!