Cosmos YES, Congress NO

Show notes for Episode 188, April 10th 2014
Hosts: Paul, Rob C, Hugh, Julie(background)
Title: Cosmos YES, Congress NO

Tonight’s show is full of people!  Starting with the birthday shout-out to Yuri Gagarin (first man in space)  we progress quickly to all the amazing women who have contributed so significantly to modern astronomy (celebrating International Women’s Day).  On the downside, we lament the cuts in the NASA budget and the impact that a world crisis can have on astronomy and space science.  On the upside, we revel in the reboot of Cosmos, commenting upon the opening episode this past week.

This week in space/astronomy history:
1. March 7th, 1962 – Launch of OSO 1 (Orbiting Solar Observatory), first astronomy satellite; main mission was to study the Sun but also to look at celestial sources of UV light, X-rays and gamma-radiation (Suggested by Jen) NASA, wiki
2. March 10th, 1977 – The rings of Uranus were discovered (Suggested by Jen) – although William Herschel apparently observed them in 1789, it is debated whether or not he could have seen them because they are so faint wiki
3. March 10th, 1814 – Spectral Analysis – first observed by Joseph von Fraunhofer (Suggested by Jen) DW, wiki
4. March 9 1934 birthday for Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, April 12, 1961.

News:
1. International Women’s Day: March 8th, 2014. Shout-out to astronomers past and present:  Jocelyn Bell Burnell (b. 1943), Annie Jump Cannon (1863-1941), Sandra Faber (b. 1944), Caroline Herschel (1750-1848), Helen Sawyer Hogg (1905-1993), Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868-1921), Cecila Payne-Gaposchkin (1900-1979), Vera Rubin (b. 1929), Carolyn Shoemaker (b. 1929), and Jill Tarter (b. 1944).
2. Asteroids whizzed by Earth.  At distance of roughly 350 000 kilometers, placing its passage inside the orbit of the Moon (385 000 km), th 25-30 metre-wide asteroid DX110 passed the Earth on March 5th, 2014.  DX110 is bigger than the Chelyabinsk meteor (20 metres) but smaller than Tunguska (60 metres). Two other asteroids, 2014 EC and 2014 EF,  also passed even closer, but were slightly smaller at about 10 metres in diameter.  These flybys are not rare, but NASA’s JPL Near-Earth Object Program is constantly watching for these objects. (Suggested Reading: 2014 DX110 Wiki, Bad Astronomy article, NASA)
3. New NASA budget request to the White House. The 2015 NASA Budget proposal has about a 1% cut compared to the 2014 budget; but when your total budget is billions of dollars, as NASA’s is, a 1% cut is 100millions of dollars (in context, the total national budget is trillions of dollars – so NASA’s total budget is less than 0.5% of that).  Areas that may receive more money: space technology (e.g., asteroid capture), commercial spaceflight (e.g., buying launches from SpaceX), heliophysics, new Europa mission (see below).  Areas that may receive cuts: earth science, astrophysics, planetary science, and education.
MER Opportunity and LRO are not on the actual request for funding, they’re on the “wish list” so they’ll probably be gone, CASSINI, CURIOSITY (obviously) and most of the other planetary missions will stay. NASA has committed to a new discovery mission starting in FY15, not sure what it will be these are the “small” 450 million dollar missions like DAWN, GRAIL and Kepler (my favourite!) Pu-238 production will continue to be funded! Yay! This is important for missions to the outer regions of the solar system, so it’s great to see that NASA is going to keep making this. They will be funding 133 million for an asteroid redirect mission, of which details are fairly limited, but 20 million will go to observing near earth objects. SOFIA got mothballed. This is bad! Education funding down by ¼, which is also bad. (Suggested Reading: NASA Fiscal Year Request Summary, Bad Astronomy article,)
Better breakdown from planetary society
Details on SOFIA
4. Ukraine-Crimea influencing astronomy? The impact of the Ukraine-Crimea conflict and a possible “sanctions showdown” with the US could imperil the ISS and indeed other NASA/DoD ;launches.  Soyuz remains the only way for people to reach the ISS and the Atlas 5 main engine is supplied by Russia.  Thus, could US space efforts be a casualty of the current eastern European crisis?
5. Europa Clipper.  One of the missions earmarked for funds in the above budget is the probe to Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa.  The launch date could be as early as the 2020s, and would see the Clipper flyby the moon many times with distance from the surface from 25 km to several thousand kilometres.  Two instruments of particular interest: an infrared spectrometer to study the icy surface, and radar to penetrate the surface ice.  It would also potentially flyby Ganymede and Callisto along the way.  Total estimated cost is about $2 billion.  Europa Clipper follows in the footsteps of Saturn’s Cassini-Huygen’s mission – although there is no mention of a lander for the Clipper.(Suggested Reading: NASA)
6. Mars rock mission. NASA Ames internal study concludes that the SpaceX Dragon capsule would have the capability to perform a sample return mission from Mars. The mission would launch from Earth in 2022, a modified Dragon capsule dubbed the Red Dragon (How cool is that?) would perform a soft landing on the martian surface, collect a sample (possibly a drilled sample!), load it up into a Mars Ascent Vehicle which would ascend out of Mars and come straight back to Earth, landing in a High Earth Orbit where it would be picked up by a second Dragon capsule and delivered safely back to Earth. NASA estimates that the Red Dragon could land up to two metric tonnes of useful payload on Mars (i.e. the equivalent of two Curiosity rovers). (Suggested reading: Space.com article)
In more SpaceX news, next week they’re launching again this time with landing legs. Still landing in the ocean but it’s all progress on the road to reusable rockets.
(Suggested reading: UniverseToday article)
7. Yutu lives! (Sort of)  The YUTU Rover (Jade Rabbit) survived its encounter with the dreaded lunar night and was able to move its instruments around even if the rover itself didn’t move. As we suspected it was an issue with the rover being able to position its solar panels correctly. At night the rover hunkers down around its warm radioactive core to keep sensitive equipment and electronics safe from the harsh environment of the lunar night, however with the disabled mechanical equipment they aren’t able to fold down the sensitive pieces of equipment on the rover’s mast. All this aside, the rover was able to wake up 48 hours behind schedule and while it’s not currently moving it is still able to take panoramic and infrared images and the ground penetrating radar is still functioning normally. They should be just coming out of their third lunar night in the next few days, hopefully everything is still in good shape!
(Suggested reading: UniverseToday article)
8. Using bonded molecules to determine exoplanet atmospheric pressure. Never ceases to amaze me what we can learn just from looking at stuff! They measure the broadening of the 1.06um absorption line corresponding to vibrating and rotating O2-O2 dimers, basically two O2s that are covalently bonded together. The theory goes that as the atmospheric pressure increases you get significantly greater broadening effects from these O2-O2 dimers than you would from a simple O2 monomer. By comparing the relative levels of the two you can determine the effect of atmospheric pressure on the O2, and thereby determine what the atmospheric pressure of the planet is likely to be.
(Suggested reading: UniverseToday article, ArXiV article)
9. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos premiered this past week.  A fitting tribute to Carl Sagan’s original series and wonderfully update images and graphics, Cosmos delivered!  Apart from an overcrowded steroid Belt graphic (and an over populated Oort Cloud) there was little to be disappointed in.  For those of us who saw the original series, this promises to be both a ride down memory lane as well as a wonderful modern tribute to teh state of modern astronomy.

Thanks for listening!
-YorkUniverse Team
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Nagi Cox Works on Mars Time: January 20th, 2014

Show notes for episode 182, January 20, 2014
Hosts: Rob B., Jesse, Pat
Special Guest: Dr. Nagin Cox
Title: Nagi Cox Works on Mars Time

‘One is tempted to leave one’s mark,’ and Dr. Nagin Cox certainly did on this show. We invited the systems engineer from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to join us and chat about her past work on Galileo, Kepler, Cassini, Spirit & Opportunity (10 year anniversary on Mars), and her current work on the Curiosity rover. In other news, 35 years ago the Soviets donated 50 kg of Uranium to Canada and Rosetta woke up from its hibernation. This is your universe, on York Universe. Show notes and podcast below.

Continue reading

New mystery rock shows up in MER-Opportunity photo

Just ahead of it it’s 10th birthday on the red planet, Opportunity has started a discussion around new rock!

Two images taken of the rover’s work area, taken two weeks apart, show that a new doughnut-sized white rock has appeared – apparently out of nowhere.

NASA said Tuesday, “the site is on ‘Murray Ridge’ – a section of the rim of Endeavour Crater where Opportunity is working on north-facing slopes during the rover’s sixth Martian winter.”

Currently two theories have arisen as to where the new rock may have come from.

The first idea put forward by scientists is that the rover itself may have dislodged the rock with its wheels while driving around. Additionally, the white coloration could be a result of the wheels flipping the rock over and exposing the underside.

The new mystery rock has been named ‘Pinnacle Island’ and has excited scientists working on the mission.

In a statement on Tuesday, NASA said, “much of the rock is bright-toned, nearly white. A portion is deep red in color. Pinnacle Island may have been flipped upside-down when a wheel dislodged it, providing an unusual circumstance for examining the underside of a Martian rock.”

This before-and-after pair of images of the same patch of ground in front of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity 13 days apart documents the arrival of a bright rock onto the scene. (NASA/JPL)

This before-and-after pair of images of the same patch of ground in front of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity 13 days apart documents the arrival of a bright rock onto the scene. (NASA/JPL)

All the other rocks in the area appear the more typical Mars reddish-brown.

The second theory is that a meteorite may have impacted the surface somewhere nearby and this rock, which does look unlike other rocks in the area. The new mystery rock could be a small fragment of the meteorite.

The first image of the area was taken on December 26, 2013 on Sol 3528. The second image was taken on January 8, 2014 on Sol 3540.

A ‘Sol’ refers to a Martian day, which is 40 minutes longer than an Earth-day.

The Sol reference number explains the number of days since Opportunity landed on Mars a decade ago – on January 25, 2004.

Opportunity has far exceeded its original mission, which was set to last for 90 days. (there are some festivities planned for later in the week the celebrate the anniversary)

The images for this mystery were taken using Opportunity’s panoramic camera, or ‘Pancam’.

If either theory is true about where this rock came from, what a great opportunity (pardon the pun) for science!

Isn’t it great that we have robots out there to investigate things like this?

Though the flip side: imagine how much we must be missing because space is very dynamic and we only have a few robots out there watching.

(A newsy version of this article also appears on Sun News Network)