A Trip to Mars

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An actual piece of Mars rests on my lap during a visit to the UW-Madison Geology Museum. I was so nervous someone had to hold me!

Could their be a more exciting way to kick off my new collaboration with the Astro Babes than to bring you photos of an actual piece of Mars?!

On Sept. 24, I accompanied the Astro Babes to a lecture in Madison that was part of the “Biosignatures: What Does Life Leave Behind?” exhibit that hopes to excite public curiosity about astrobiology research at UW-Madison. A presentation entitled “How to build an Astrobiology Exhibit in 1,272 Easy Steps” was followed by a reception in the museum that not only featured a piece of Mars, but a rare opportunity to hold a piece of it in your hands.

The main attraction for this event was a viewed fall of the Tissint meteorite that is thought to have broken off the Red Planet around 700,000 years ago and witnessed landing in Morocco in 2011.

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Here I’m looking at the 700,000-year-old piece of Mars that the museum recently acquired. This is one of the five rare observed falls from Mars.

The collector that sold this piece to the museum also lent a piece to the museum that lecture attendees could hold in their hand. Unlike most meteorites found on Earth, this piece was very light and had no real fusion crust. It was identified Martian by testing the “atmosphere” that was trapped inside air pockets in the rock.

NASA funds the Wisconsin Astrobiology Research Consortium and other teams to develop new tools and methods for detecting evidence of past life on Earth. This research will then help scientists recognize signs of life in other places such as Mars or Titan because we won’t find any dinosaur bones there.

Martian rocks are a rarity here on Earth today, but I plan to personally bring back many more rocks for research on my first round-trip mission to Mars.

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By Barbara Millicent Roberts
Astro Babe Mars Correspondent

New Member of the Team

barbie-head-shotThe Astro Babes want to welcome a new guest correspondent to our team! Barbara Millicent Roberts, an astronaut and notable Martian expert from Willows, Wisconsin, will be sharing her expertise in future blogs on our website.

Often referred to as “Mars Explorer Barbie,” Ms. Roberts officially began her assignment in collaboration with NASA in August. Her assignment coincided with the first anniversary of NASA’s Curiosity rover landing on Mars.

The Astro Babes want to express their gratitude to Ms. Roberts for agreeing to act as our official Mars Correspondent, and we look forward to her contributions in the near future.

Smile – Cassini’s Watching!

Say cheese, or batman, or fuzzy pickles or whatever it takes to get that perfect smile. You’ll want to look good for this one!

On Friday July 19th the Cassini spacecraft 900 million miles from earth will be taking our picture, in an event being called “The Day the Earth Smiled”.   I imagine that this could be one of those events that you’ll look back on and remember where you were, or what you were doing when that historic photo was taken.Saturn

Now I know that to Cassini,  earth will be just a tiny blue dot, and of course no one will see you in the photo standing on top of a building with a huge “Hi Mom” sign, frantically waving your arms and staring up at the sky.  But YOU’LL know that at that moment a beautiful and historic image is being taken from many miles from earth.

While Cassini has taken several photos of the earth over the last nine years, this is the first time that the public has know about it in advance. Making this a special event!

So on Friday at between 2:27 and 2:47pm Pacific daylight time (they’ve accounted for light travel times) whether you choose to go outside and make a scene, or you just take a moment to glance outside, make sure you stop, if only for a moment and smile. You’ll be taking part in recognizing a truly amazing event!

Oh… and don’t forget to say cheese!

Amy

Analemma – Activity #1

Activity 1 So – here is the drawing I made from the dimensions of my apparatus, and the distances to both the equinoxes and the solstices.  The side marked “Gnomon” is the measurement from the ground to the height of the stick (gnomon).

I then measured the distance from the gnomon to the dots corresponding to the equinoxes and the solstices.

The drawing I used was full size. This drawing is just representative of my drawing. It’s not the actual drawing. It’s important for you to make the drawing full size in order to measure the angles for activity 1.

You will also need a protractor

For the first part of the activity – “measure the tilt of the earth’s axis using only your analemma and apparatus measurements.”

Take your protractor and measure angle a, then angle b. Then subtract b from a. This will be approximately 23 degrees which is the tilt of the earth’s axis.

Next – using your protractor measure the angle marked ‘latitude’. This is – you guessed it – your latitude!

Yea! One down  – three to go! Up next – Activity #2: with reference only to your analemma and measured dimensions of your observing apparatus, calculate the Sun’s path in the sky and produce a sketch or plot to depict that path.

Hmmmm – getting tougher!!

Amy

The Analemma – Or, how I spent my summer vacation.

Analemma
Analemma

And my spring break, Christmas vacation, birthday and, well you get the idea.

So I spent the last year of my life running home at lunch, watching weather reports and planning when I could get the next dot on my analemma. So here’s the end result. Yes, that’s it.

I was thrilled to see the figure 8, however as you can see, I’m a little off center. It should be going straight up the center of the page. I’m a little off to the left. That means that I took my readings a tad early, a result of taking readings at noon by the clock. I should have used solar noon.

Solar noon is when the sun is at it’s highest in the sky. It actually happens at different times everyday, but you can calculate the ‘average’ time of solar noon. File that under ‘things to do differently next time’. HA – next time – I don’t think so!

Before I took it off the frame, I measured the distance from the tip of the gnomon to the dots marking the solstices and the equinoxes. I also had to measure the exact height of the gnomon.

These measurements are needed to complete the first activity, which is: with reference only to your analemma and measured dimensions of your observing apparatus, calculate (1) the tilt of the Earth’s axis relative to its orbital plane, and (2) your observing Latitude.

Easy right? Well as it turns out, not too bad! But you’ll have to stay tuned!

Amy

 

One Small Cut by Obama – One Giant Loss for Mankind

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Kepler Space Telescope

Unfortunately, I can’t take credit for the header of this blog, but I as soon as I read it, I realized it fit my topic nicely.

Four weeks ago, I wrote about the impending demise of the Hubble Space Telescope because there is no more Space Shuttle to make repairs or bring it spare parts. Two weeks ago, I wrote about the death of the Herschel Space Telescope, which occurred because it ran out of liquid helium – once again, because there is no more Space Shuttle.

Today I read of another likely casualty of Obama’s decision to prematurely retire our Space Shuttle fleet, a fleet that had only completed about 40% of its serviceable life expectancy. The Kepler Space Telescope, launched on March 7, 2009, will be the next victim of the budget cuts. A faulty steering wheel may end the mission of the $600 million telescope.

In order to keep its four solar panels facing the sun, Kepler must make a 90-degree roll every three months. One of the steering wheels failed last year and another failed last week. Kepler can continue to work for the next few months, and ground control will try a different mode of steering to keep it serviceable. But a house call by a mission specialist could have guaranteed that its mission continued for some time to come.

Kepler’s mission, expected to last until 2016, was to survey the Milky Way galaxy and uncover Earth-size planets that fall within the habitable zone. These discoveries would be used to estimate the number of Earth-size planets that exist in our galaxy and our known-universe. It would also reveal more about the orbits and distribution of other Earth-like planets, and give us a list of places where astronomers could search for extraterrestrial life. As of this January 2,740 Earth-sized exoplanets had been found in the Milky Way Galaxy alone, including a pair located just 1,200 light years away.

The James Webb Space Telescope,  scheduled to launch in 2018, will help in the search for exoplanets. Other planet-hunting missions include the ESA’s Cheops (CHaaracterising ExOPlanets Satellite) launch in 2017, and a NASA 2017 launch of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).

But in budget cut land, those launches are a long way away. I guess all we can do now is cross our fingers and elect an administration that has its priorities straight.

Lynn

Star Charts – A Thing of the Past?

star chartI was so excited when I bought my Star Atlas 2000. After a few years in the club I finally felt the need for a good star chart. I was no longer intimidated by the seemingly chaotic pages of the star atlas, and could finally make sense of the thousands of dots.

When my book came in the mail I sat like a kid at Christmas, on the livingroom floor with the book sprawled out in front of me. I carefully opened each page, looking for familiar constellations and star names. It was so amazing. I felt as though I finally had the knowledge and the tools to do some serious observing.

I spent hours prepping for my first Messier Marathon using the book. Armed with sticky arrows I located all my targets on the maps and wrote down the page numbers on my messier list.

How quickly things change! This fast moving and ever changing world of cell phones, computers and tablets has also affected the world of observational astronomy. There are apps out there that allow stargazers to organize their time more efficiently, and to save some space in the ever growing bag of gadgets needed to observe. The electronic star chart has done away with the need to drag out the book, my precious book. It allows us to access with literally the touch of a finger the wonders of the night sky.

Lynn and I have used an electronic star chart to find asteroid Vesta, planets and Messier objects. We both have a small tablet, mine being a Kindle Fire. The app I use is Distant Suns, developed by Mike Smithwick. It’s a great app that allows me to carry the universe in my pocket. I can search for messier objects or just check out which constellations will be out tonight. I love using it and I love being able to put my tablet in my purse or my duffel bag and bring it anywhere.

So what about my star charts? Well, I’m not ready to get rid of them quite yet. I love how they look, how they feel and what they represent. Yes I know, I put too much emotional attachment on things. That’s why I can’t get rid of stuff like the 35mm camera my dad gave me, my prom dress from 1976, my VHS collection of Star Trek movies and the little pink dress both my girls wore in pictures when they were babies.

Well….maybe the prom dress can finally go!
Amy

Supporting the International Dark-Sky Network

Although we don’t have a chapter nearby, our club has used the resources of the

The effects of light pollution.
The effects of light pollution.

International Dark-Sky Network, an organization that focuses on raising awareness of the adverse affects of light pollution. We support them not just because light pollution and sky glow make it harder for us to see faint objects, but because light pollution causes many other problems as well.

For astronomers, sky glow reduces the contrast between celestial objects, and makes it much harder to see fainter objects. That forces me, Amy, and all our fellow amateurs here to drive farther and farther to find a dark sky.

In the war against light, we can flock our telescope tubes with a dark cloth or use light shields. We can also use filters on our scopes that filter out the spectral lines that are emitted by sodium and mercury-vapor lamps, but these filters also reduce the brightness of objects and limit the use of higher magnifications.

Although it’s an inconvenience for us, scientists are finding that light pollution is a much more serious problem for nocturnal animals and plants. Artificial lighting affects how animals and insects interact. It prevents zooplankton from eating algae, which contributes to those nasty algae blooms that kill off lake plants and lower the quality of water. Moths and nocturnal insects change their pollination patterns, and artificial lighting causes all sorts of problems for Sea Turtles, frogs, and salamander hatchlings.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that four to five million birds are killed each year after being attracted to tall, lit towers. Migrating birds may also need polarized moonlight for navigation, which becomes invisible under heavy light pollution.

So light pollution is not just a problem for us amateurs, but also for our environment as well. If you or your club are not aware of or supporting the activities of the International Dark-Sky Network, this is a good time to get educated. Their website is also a terrific resource if, for example, you have a neighbor with a new sodium lamp that lights up the farms for miles, or you hear that a new car dealership is going up in your town.

Spend some time on their website and learn all about their efforts. You can help spread their message in your community, and you will be doing some good for your fellow astronomers and for the environment as well.

Lynn

The Clock is Ticking

Following its launch on April 24, 1990, the Hubblehubble Space Telescope (HST) got off to a shaky start. But after the 1993 repair mission and four more house calls by Space Shuttle astronauts, the Hubble went on to observe more than 30,000 celestial targets and amass more than half a million pictures of our universe.

The Hubble was designed to be deployed, captured, and serviced by Space Shuttles, and now that the Shuttle program has ended, it’s just a matter of time before the Hubble goes dark. That time is sooner than we realize.

The HST is only expected to remain operational until some time next year, with scientists squeezing out every last possible photograph.

In the meantime, NASA is working on the Hubble’s replacement, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), scheduled to launch in 2018. Technology has moved forward since the launch pillars-of-creationof the Hubble in 1990, and the new $5 billion telescope will carry technology that is much more sophisticated. Slated to launch in 2014, JWST will orbit much higher than the Hubble (1 million miles from the Earth’s surface verses 347 miles) and will use infrared technology to peer much deeper into our universe.

The original plan was to recapture the dying Hubble with a Space Shuttle and house it in the Smithsonian as a national treasure. However, without the Shuttle program, there is no way to bring it safely back to Earth.

Hubble could remain in a decaying orbit until sometime between 2019 and 2032 but it weighs 24,500 pounds (as much as two full-grown elephants) and is as long as a large school bus. If it were to decay and then descend on its own, parts of the Hubble’s main mirror and support structure will most likely survive. Guess we can’t have that big mirror landing in downtown Chicago during rush hour. Carina Nebula

The last visit to the Hubble by mankind will be by a robotic spacecraft that will attach itself to the telescope and guide it safely back to Earth in a fiery reentry. Until then, let’s enjoy it while we can, and keep our fingers crossed that the Energizer Bunny keeps it going and going and going…

Lynn

Who Owns A Meteorite?

MeteoriteIf you’ve read our Hunting for Meteorites adventure (if you haven’t you should!) you know that we did our best to have a successful meteorite hunting trip.  Lynn downloaded a map of the strewn field and researched which tools would be most useful.  I – well I think I just booked the hotel, but somebody had to do it!

With GPS in hand we ventured down to the Madison area and proceeded to spend hours and hours dragging rare earth magnets around behind us, looking at anything that resembled a meteorite. We left no stone unturned at parks, along roadsides and even in cemeteries with no luck.

After the meteorite exploded over Russia, I read stories about people collecting pockets full of meteorites hoping to sell them. One woman made the comment, though, that the Russian police would just come and take them away anyway. It made me wonder, what if Lynn and I had found that elusive rock we know is still down there some where? Who would own it?

It seems that, in Russia, the government determines who can sell a meteorite. Here in the U.S., a meteorite belongs to whoever owns the land it falls on. That means that if  a meteorite lands in the middle of a city park, the city would own it. So after all of our trudging down county roads and through parking lots and parks, if we had come up with a piece of space rock it technically wouldn’t belong to us anyway!

That won’t stop me from looking. I still want to make that find. But it would be so much easier if one just fell through my roof, or on top of my car!

The odds of that are – well – astronomical!

(Sorry about that)

Amy