Lynn and I gave another ‘Lynn and Amy’ show on Sept. 3rd. Our topic this time was “Our trip to the Asteroid Belt”, or “How I Spent My Summer Vacation”.
Planning a trip to the asteroid belt requires a lot of research. After all, if we’re going to spend that much time cooped up in a small spacecraft we better have some cool destinations in mind! It turns out that the asteroid belt is NOT the veritable mine field portrayed in Sci-fi movies. It’s actually fairly easy to get through, no need to dodge asteroids. In fact, the entire mass of the asteroid belt if compacted would be roughly 4% of the moon. The four largest asteroids: Ceres, Vesta, Pallas and Hygiea account for half the belts mass, with Ceres making up a third!
The good people at NASA have a lot of experience traveling to the asteroid belt. One mission, the ARM, or Asteroid Redirect Mission is in the planning phase. They plan on bringing back an asteroid and putting it in orbit around the moon. Don’t worry, it’s going to be a small one. The spacecraft would use a solar electric propulsion engine. Unfortunately we still have to develop a SEP that has enough power to get to the asteroid belt, grab an asteroid and bring it back.
Since the ARM is still in the planning phase there’s no way we’ll be traveling to an asteroid in lunar orbit any time soon. We needed to check out something more current, so we looked at the Dawn mission. The Dawn mission is half complete. It has already studied Vesta, the first of it’s two destinations and is on it’s way to Ceres. This spacecraft uses an entirely different method of travel, ion propulsion. It’s economical, lightweight and very maneuverable. The downside is that it is very pokey.
It turns out that we may have to put off our trip to the asteroid belt for awhile. First of all, I just don’t have enough PTO banked to cover that kind of time, and second we should really wait until a more convenient method of travel is developed. We’ll leave the asteroid exploring to robot satellites and future NASA astronauts.
One of my favorite observing nights was a journey out to Cedar Drive Observatory, owned by fellow club member Tony Kroes. Lynn and I went out there to see an NEA, or Near Earth Asteroid that was tumbling by at a distance closer to us than the moon. I’ll give you a minute to wrap your brain around that one.
This was something that allegedly we’d be able to see through our binoculars, so ever optimistic, we arrive with a small star chart with the approximate path of the asteroid printed on it. It became clear that we just wouldn’t be able to find this thing ourselves so leave it to Tony to find this moving target.
I’m sure I actually dropped my jaw the first time I saw this piece of space rock roll on through the field of view. This is one of the reasons that I became interested in NASA’s Dawn mission. The Dawn spacecraft’s mission is to visit not one, but two asteroid belt objects, the two largest asteroids, Ceres and Vesta. These two asteroids can, at times, be viewed through binoculars!
What’s cool about these asteroids is that they represent the beginning of our solar system. They hold secrets to how our solar system formed, and why there’s an asteroid belt at all! What’s also cool is that this year they can be seen in the same field of view!
So – here’s your challenge – go to www.heavens-above.com and click on the ‘Asteroid’ link then – you guessed it, find Vesta and Ceres! Make sure you observe them more than one night to see the movement. They’re getting dimmer so your better get out there soon!
I’m guessing that if you’re reading this blog, you’re the type that thoroughly enjoyed the first episode of Cosmos last night. (If you missed it, watch it here). It had an estimated 5.8 million viewers. How cool is that??!?
The show opened with Neil deGrasse Tyson taking us on a tour of the solar system in an updated version of the Ship of the Imagination (much cooler than the 1980 version). The show also included the story of Giordano Bruno, the first man to see a vision of a limitless universe. The Cosmic Calendar followed, which started with the big bang and put the timeline of our universe into perspective.
Needless to say, Amy and I really enjoyed the show. To commemorate the event, we threw a Cosmos Party that included our respective spouses. Chocolate wine, strawberries, cheese, homemade cookies, chips – all on a table that usually holds our star charts and binoculars. Who says astronomy is boring??
It turned out that Cosmos wasn’t the only spacey thing going on last night, either. As soon as Cosmos ended, the local PBS station aired Apollo 17: The Untold Story of the Last Men on the Moon.
We also peeked in on a live web cast from Slooh.com, who was tracking asteroid 2014 CU13 from the Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands. This asteroid, approximately 623 feet wide, whizzed by us today about 1.9 million miles (a mere eight times the distance between the Earth and the moon). Slooh hoped to draw attention to the asteroid so amateur astronomers will help efforts to pinpoint its orbit.
A good time was had by all, and it was nice to do some indoor astronomy for a change. Hope you got all of Amy’s tweet’s during the show!
I was clicking through the channels the other night and stumbled upon an episode ofUniversity Place Presents on PBS entitled “The History of the End of the World”.
At first I suspected it would be all about astronomy; meteorites and asteroids, solar flares and rogue planets. Juicy cataclysmic stuff hurtling towards us from the unknown reaches of our galaxy.
But it turns out that demise by space debris is a relatively new concept in human history. Before Copernicus, people believed that the end of the world would come about as an upheaval in social order, or perhaps by the hand of God or an expanding and contracting universe.
Copernicus discovered that we’re not alone in a sphere, but rather, we’re vulnerable and out in open space with a lot of company. That’s when our stories of destruction changed. The universe became a whole lot scarier.
Just two years ago some of us went to bed on December 11 wondering if the sun would rise the next day. Would there be a flip of the Earth’s magnetic axis or its rotational axis? Would the alignment between the Earth, the Sun, and the center of the galaxy somehow be disastrous? Would we be struck by the rogue Planet X? And how scary was it to have a near-Earth miss and the Chelyabinsk meteor entering the Earth’s atmosphere over Russia only six weeks later?
The possibility of space debris falling on us frightens a lot of people, so many that the term Cosmophobia has been coined to define people who fear outer space and all the things it has to throw at us. Perhaps it’s time to get our aluminum hats out and wear them outdoors all the time.
Picture Eleanor Arroway (Contact) sitting for hours in the desert with a towel on her head, pressing her headphones tight against her ears trying to hear anything that would sound remotely like ET. Oh how I’d love to be her!
While the research done by radio astronomers may include the search for ET, it also includes the task of searching for NEO’s or near earth asteroids.
According to NASA, an NEO will graze by Earth on May 31st. OK, not so much of a graze but it IS in the neighborhood. Asteroid 1998 QE2 will sail by earth at a distance of 3.6 million miles, or about 15 lunar distances. It’s about 1.7 miles across, or the size of 9 Queen Elizabeth 2’s.
This won’t make a great visual observing target, but the radio astronomers are ready to go! Radar images can resolve features on the asteroid as small as 12 feet across. Between May 30th and June 9th radio astronomers will be using both the Goldstone California’s Deep Space Network antenna and the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico. (It’ll do!) Using both will maximize the information we can get during this brief encounter.
Stay tuned for images and updates!!
Hmmm – I think I have to watch Contact again. This time I’ll try not to sit two feet away from the screen with the surround sound blaring during the opening. Nope, sorry, I can’t resist!!