Space Science Sunday – an open thread (with video)

Time for another open thread — and as ever, given the lousy political and economic news, I prefer to focus on the positive, and space science is chock full of positivity. (Except of course, for all those poor NASA workers who’ve been furloughed.)

The Juno spacecraft which suffered a glitch during its slingshot past Earth last week appears to be operating normally again. NASA still isn’t 100% sure why, but the probe looks okay.

Scientists also plan to use the flyby data to see if they can figure out why there appears to be a very slight random deviation from calculated vectors on these slingshot maneuvers.

Juno spacecraft - photo courtesy NASA / JPL-Caltech / SwRI

Juno spacecraft – photo courtesy NASA / JPL-Caltech / SwRI

Peter Higgs found out he’d won the Nobel Prize for physics when a neighbor congratulated him on the good news. “I said, ‘Oh, what news?” Higgs related to reporters.

Sadly, Scott Carpenter, one of the last surviving Mercury 7 astronauts, passed away last Thursday. (Not ‘positive’ news as such, but I felt he deserved the recognition.)

So far, chances are looking good that Comet ISON will not just crash into the sun or break up on closest approach. If it survives perihelion, it’ll be a Christmas Comet. Current photos show it with a distinctly green colored tail. (Fact: It’s called ‘ISON’ because Russian astronomers first discovered the comet using the International Scientific Optical Network.)

Comet ISON (photo by Adam Block / Mount Lemmon SckyCenter / U of AZ)

Comet ISON (photo by Adam Block / Mount Lemmon SckyCenter / U of AZ)

Speaking of comets, the ESA’s probe, Rosetta, will wake up in about 100 days and begin its rendezvous with the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The hope is it will be in a position to make a soft landing with its Philae sub-part.

A water-rich asteroid / ‘rocky planetary body’ has been found orbiting a white dwarf star.

Evidence has been found of a comet hitting the Earth in Egypt, oddly enough the first time there’s been definitive proof. Humans weren’t around to see it happen though, as the impact has been dated to around 28 million years ago.

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Neptune’s tiny moon Naiad has been behaving, well, like a naiad. Which is to say, slippery, tricksy, mischievous and elusive. Naiad was discovered by Voyager 2 during its flyby in 1989, and then lost. Finally, astronomers found it again by going through Hubble telescope archive images from December 2004.

However, now there are new mysteries: Naiad isn’t where they thought it should be, and is well ahead of its originally projected orbital path.

And finally, the best for last. The SpaceX ‘Grasshopper’ reusable rocket takes another leap, this time half a mile high (744m), and once again lands itself perfectly. Watch this video, it’s pretty cool.


Published professional writer and poet, Becca had a three decade career in technical writing and consulting before selling off most of her possessions in 2006 to go live at an ashram in India for 3 years. She loves literature (especially science fiction), technology and science, progressive politics, cool electronic gadgets, and perfecting Hatch green chile recipes. Fortunately for this last, Becca and her wife currently live in New Mexico. @BeccaMorn

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  • chrislib

    That “rocket ship” is just like in all the old movies on SyFy. Only took 60 years. Werner von Braun would be proud.

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    Well, it’s my hope that within a few weeks, my knee will heal. It really was a sudden and unexpected injury.

  • Monoceros Forth

    Let me recommend “Burnham’s Celestial Handbook” in three volumes. It runs through a large number of celestial objects of interest with all kinds of information about them, including tips on observing. It’s not a star atlas, though, so you’d need that as a separate resource.

    I’m trying to think of what would be good for an amateur astronomer for whom standing for long periods isn’t feasible. There are clever telescope designs with a fixed eyepiece (e.g. Russell Porter’s “Springfield Mount”) but I don’t think any such thing is available commercially (and I’m sure it’d cost a fortune if it were.) A Cassegrainian type, such as the venerable Celestron C8, in which the overall tube length is short and the eyepiece at the bottom, might be preferable because the height of the eyepiece doesn’t change much as the telescope is tilted. Such instruments are considerably more expensive however than Newtonian types like the familiar Dobsonian.

  • Hue-Man

    I’ve been thinking about the recently-updated Climate Change Report and am wondering what would have happened if the deniers had been around for two significant international pollution agreements – the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (1987+) and the Acid Rain Treaty (signed 1991 by two conservative national leaders).

    I can hear the objections – “Nobody lives in Antarctica. Business is going to be wiped out by unnecessary government intererence. Nobody has proved that CFCs deplete ozone. Nobody has proved that sulfur emissions cause the formation of sulfur dioxide and sulfuric acid. Acid rain doesn’t exist (those lakes are naturally clear (i.e. dead) all the way to the bottom!).” And the reality?

    “The most recent (2006) scientific evaluation of the effects of the Montreal Protocol states, “The Montreal Protocol is working: There is clear evidence of a decrease in the atmospheric burden of
    ozone-depleting substances and some early signs of stratospheric ozone recovery.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montreal_Protocol#Effect

    “As of 2010, the U.S. national Acid Rain Program has reduced emissions of sulfur dioxide by 67
    percent from 1990 levels. Power plant emissions of nitrogen oxides have decreased by over two
    thirds from 1990 to 2010 under the U.S. Acid Rain Program and other regional programs.

    These reductions have contributed to significant improvements in air quality on both sides of the border. Reductions in fine particle levels resulting from the U.S. Acid Rain Program are estimated to yield significant human health benefits including 20,000 – 50,000 lives saved each year.” http://www.epa.gov/airmarkets/progsregs/usca/docs/anniversary.pdf (More good news about air quality in both countries in the EPA’s 20th anniversary report.)

    BTW, when was the last time you heard anyone talk about acid rain or ozone depletion?

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    Absolutely: Open clusters is on the list. After I showed her Andromeda, I dropped down to the east and showed her the Pleiades. Nothing quite like when those ‘Seven Sisters’ become dozens of stars across an entire field of view. She has this ancient pair of field binoculars w/zoom and had always thought it just wasn’t worth the bother to try. (My reply: “Well, yeah, you’re only talking 10x magnification, lousy light gathering, and 30-year old optics.)

    We’ve repurposed her extra heavy-duty camera tripod, the one she used to use for her 4×5 view-camera, to hold the new binoculars. Works great. Rock steady.

    Also on our list: The planets, of course. 20x should be good enough to see Jupiter’s cloud banding and its four biggest moons, as well as Saturn’s rings if the inclination is favorable.

    And of course, nebulae. Orion should be easy, once it starts getting into the sky early enough for decent viewing.

    My only real trouble (besides right now not being able to be on my feet for more than about 10-15 minutes at a time due to the knee sprain) is it’s been so many years since I’ve done serious stargazing, I’ve forgotten where everything is. I actually had to look up M31 (embarrassing) on Google Sky before I remembered, “Oh yeah, find Cassie, use the upper angle as an arrow, then look south and just a skoatch to the east.”

    Where we are now, fortunately it’s only a horizon issue with the skies and not city lights. Our place is just east of the Sandia mountain range. Mountains block the Albuquerque light — and in fact there are no bright light sources around here; the downside is those same mountains block a fair amount of western horizon, too.

    I’m pretty sure once our finances settle down, we’re going to build a small observatory building here and get either an 8- or 10-inch dobsonian. Might even invest in one of those fancy computerized models.

  • Monoceros Forth

    Yeah, I know what you mean about not having clear horizons. I’ve never lived that far from a big city and ever since moving to Washington state I’ve never lived anywhere but right in the middle of one, and even on a rooftop there will always be buildings and poles and trees in the way, and the glow of the city’s lights obscuring anything too close to the horizon.

    If you want to treat your wife to some spectacular viewing through binoculars I recommend the open clusters such as M35 in Gemini, the “Double Cluster” h and χ Persei, M44 in Cancer, and many others. There’s nothing quite like seeing a barely visible smudge of light resolve itself into hundreds of sparkling points of light.

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    I’ve only seen two ‘significant’ comets — Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp in the mid 90s. (Halley’s in ’86 was a bust.) The first had this gorgeous electric-blue tail, well-defined, while the latter had a reddish tail that spread across most of the sky (took a long time to see it though, since one’s eyes had to be fully dark-adapted).

    Since then there’ve been a few, but none more than a smudge or a thin line usually not far from the horizon. And as luck would have it, when comets come, I rarely seem to have clear western horizons. If it’s not at least 10-degrees up, forget it.

    Having just recently purchased a semi-decent pair of astronomy binocs (20×80 Skymasters), I’m hopeful. (Last week, I was able to show Andromeda to my wife, who’d never seen it optically before.)

  • Monoceros Forth

    Comets with green comae have been seen before although I’ve never seen one for myself. Comet 2009 R1 McNaught (not the famous Comet McNaught of 2006-2007 that lucky Southern Hemisphere dwellers could see even in daylight when it was at its brightest) was noted for its unusual green color. Comet 8P Tuttle also had a striking green coma (as in this gallery of photos of the comet alongside the Pinwheel Galaxy in Triangulum.) Molecular emission bands from diatomic carbon (the “Swan bands”) seem to be the source of the color.

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    Sweet.

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    Yeah, it’s nasty over there. Kinda why this post is here, to serve as an oasis of sanity and serenity.

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    Sorry, should’ve said ‘one of’.

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    Mark Thoma has a medical one coming up at 8, assuming no other breaking news.

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    Yeah, boy it’s hopping over there for a Sunday!

  • cj

    uh, Mercury

  • cj

    Scott Carpenter wasn’t the last surviving Mercy astronaut. John Glenn is still kicking at 92.

  • pappyvet

    Phew ! Had to get out of the Palin room for a few. ;]

  • pappyvet

    Science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition. ~Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, 1776

  • http://adgitadiaries.com/ karmanot

    Absolutely love these science posts!

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    I know, and it pisses me off to no end that science and basic research are considered dispensable. There’s another Mars probe that’ll probably end up being delayed for at least two years, because the orbital launch window will be lost.

    I take it as yet another sign of the decline of this nation.

  • rerutled

    Also: 98% of NASA employees remain on furlough — the largest fraction of any government department or agency.

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