Pluto Mission Success!

Amy and I joined the rest of the Earth and held our breath tonight mission-controlwaiting for the confirmation call from New Horizons.

The NASA Twitter feed counted down the approach of the signal as it crossed the halfway point, then Jupiter’s orbit, then Mars’ orbit. Then the live feed on NASA TV confirmed the nominal condition of one system after another and the control room exploded with cheers.

At its closest approach, the spacecraft buzzed Pluto at approximately 6,200 miles above its surface, then buzzed Charon from about 17,931 miles. The pictures and data will be exciting, although we’ll have to wait 16 months to see them all.

The first image from Pluto will arrive some time overnight and will be released in the morning. Tomorrow we’ll wake up to the opportunity of a lifetime – to view close-up images of the last unexplored world in our solar system. How cool is that??


I Hate Pluto – and You Should, Too!

Megan Pickett, Associate Professor of Physics, prepares for a presentation at the July NPMAS meeting.

Last Wednesday, our local astronomy club was treated to a presentation by Megan Pickett, an Associate Professor of Physics from Lawrence University in Appleton. In anticipation of NASA’s New Horizon spacecraft flyby of Pluto in less than two weeks, Pickett’s presentation was entitled “I Hate Pluto (and Why You Should, Too).”

Much of Pickett’s talk centered on the International Astronomical Union‘s (IAU) demotion of Pluto from a full-fledged planet to a dwarf planet in August of 2006. The IAU pulled Pluto’s status because of its size, its makeup, and its erratic orbit.

Because of its icy composition, Pickett said Pluto’s surface looks more like a plate of quiche than a rocky planet. She said Pluto is very small (less than 1,500 miles in diameter), and that it hasn’t cleared its orbit of debris, which is an accepted prerequisite for planet status. Additionally, Pluto’s orbit is unlike the orbit of any other planet in our Solar System.

Charon, once considered Pluto’s largest moon, is nearly the size of Pluto. It’s not even considered a moon of Pluto anymore, but rather, is classified as a binary object because the center of balance between Pluto and Charon is outside of Pluto.

July 1 photo of Pluto and Cheron taken by the New Horizons spacecraft from a distance of ten million miles. Photo by NASA/JHUAPL/SWR.

Pluto is now classified as a Kuiper Belt object, one of hundreds of thousands of objects in the outer solar system. The Kuiper belt is home to the three known dwarf planets (Pluto, Makemake and Haumea) as well as most short-period comets.

On July 14, New Horizons will photograph Pluto’s surface from just 7,800 miles away. It will also survey Pluto’s moons and other Kuiper Belt objects.

Pickett has been a featured speaker for our club in the past, and always answers questions well past the museum’s closing time. She brought teammates from her other passion, the Paper Valley Roller Girls, a roller derby league she’s been president of since 2008.


Ceres Curiosity is Killing Me!

I don’t know about you, but this is making me absolutely nuts!

Yesterday, NASA’s released this image on Ceres from an altitude of 2,700 miles.
Yesterday, NASA’s released this image on Ceres from an altitude of 2,700 miles.


My rational adult brain understands that I only need to be patient a little while longer. In August, the Dawn spacecraft will skim above the surface of Ceres at a mere 230 miles. Soon after that, we will hopefully receive a convincing explanation of what those bright, shiny spots are on Ceres. But until then, I’m losing sleep.

Fortunately, the photos from Ceres have improved as the Dawn spacecraft has gotten closer. But rather than solve the riddle, each photographic improvement has bought more questions.

HST 2004
HST 2004
Dawn, Feb. 2015. Distance 29,000 miles
Dawn, Feb. 2015. Distance 29,000 miles
Dawn, June 6, 2015. Distance 2,700 miles
Dawn, June 6, 2015. Distance 2,700 miles

Just what the heck are those mysterious, shiny patches? Our greatest minds are postulating subsurface ice reflecting sunlight, or ice volcanoes, or even salt. Me? Well I’m not convinced that the sun can light up ice that brightly from 257 million miles away. I could be wrong.

And ice volcanoes? Shiny salt? Sigh.

So just what the heck are they anyway??


Destination – Asteroid Belt!

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!

Image from
Image from

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.

Artist concept showing the Dawn spacecraft with Ceres and Vesta.
Artist concept showing the Dawn spacecraft with Ceres and Vesta. Image from

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.

In the mean time – a girl can dream!!

Dare to dream!


Geocaching in Space

Mastracchio travfel but
Mastracchio holding his geocache Travel Bug on board the ISS.

I received an email from Groundspeak yesterday announcing that geocaching Astronaut Rick Mastracchio had safely returned home from a six-month stint on the ISS. He was carrying the first Travel Bug that actually spent some time in outer space.

Mastracchio also logged the first and highest “Find” on the ISS in a cache hidden earlier on the outside of the station by fellow astronaut and geocacher Richard Garriott.

It’s hard to imagine that there are people who don’t know what geocaching is, but for the neophyte, geocaching is a grown-up treasure hunting game using GPS’s to navigate to a specific set of GPS coordinates. Each cache has a logbook to sign, and may contain treasures that can be swapped, including items called Travel Bugs that travel from one geocache site to another.

220px-Geocaching logo
International symbol for geocaching.

So I’m telling Amy about the astronauts geocaching on the ISS, and whoa!! Just a darn minute there!! How can you geocache in space with no lines of latitude or longitude, Amy interrupts? On a moving object too? Was the ISS orbiting below a GPS satellites’ orbit, and if so, did Mastracchio utilize the GPS signals from the satellites? And if you’re not using lines of latitude and longitude, is it really geocaching, or is it just playing hide and seek? I gotta admit; there’s never a dull moment when you’re hanging around with Amy.

All good questions to ask Mastracchio next time you see him at the Pick N’ Save. In the meantime, if the weather is reasonable this weekend and you’re not afraid of the daylight, give it a try. It’s free, and all you need to do is register on, get the coordinates of some caches near you, and grab your GPS, your smart phone, or the GPS from your car. In fact, maybe I’ll try to get Amy to do some geocaching this weekend. Can’t imagine we’ll find Mastracchio’s travel bug though – the next stop for that thing is probably a cache at the Smithsonian.


Solar System Ambassador

Amy by Stu CroppedIn January of this year I became a Solar System Ambassador for NASA/JPL! This is a volunteer position who’s function is public outreach. This last Monday I gave a 2 hour presentation for our local LIR (Learning in Retirement) group. See – I can look professional if I want! No tin foil hats here!

What a fun group of adults who asked lots of great questions. I must be honest, I was a bit intimidated by these folks, they are very informed! We talked about asteroids and comets since this year has been a whirlwind of activity in both of those areas. I was a bit nervous at first, but I think things went well. I learned a lot about presenting in that venue! I wasn’t used to using a microphone (I forgot to turn it on twice!). Hearing me is usually not a problem! I only had one technical problem but I worked that out too!

Thank you LIR for letting me have the opportunity to talk with your members! I hope to see you again next year!

If you want to find a Solar System Ambassador in your area please follow the link above. There’s an interactive map for you to find someone in your state!


A Whole Different World

1962 NASA rejection to Miss Kelly. No girls allowed.

Back in the early 60’s when I was a little girl, I would lie on the grass for hours and watch the clouds and planes and commercial jets fly over my head on their way to some place much more exotic than my front lawn in Sheboygan. It was there on that lawn that I decided I would be a pilot when I grew up. But the world was a different place in the 60’s.

A few weeks ago, I read about a rejection letter that a woman, identified as Miss Kelly, received from NASA in 1962. She had applied to be an astronaut but was turned down simply because she was a girl.

That story actually didn’t surprise me at all, but later, it occurred to me that most of the young women of today probably would not believe it was true.

I was 11-years-old when Miss Kelly received her rejection letter. It was right around that time that I told my Mom and my aunt that I wanted to be a pilot when I grew up. With all-knowing snickers and smirks on their faces, they explained to me that there was no way that was going to happen. Girls were not allowed to be pilots. Only boys could be pilots. I could become a stewardess if I was tall enough and pretty enough, but that didn’t interest me at all.

Little did my Mom or my aunt know that that conversation not only ended my dreams of becoming a pilot, it ended a career path that would have led me to sending in my own application to NASA to become an astronaut some 30 years later.

It was only 21 years after Miss Kelly received that letter that Sally Ride took her first ride into space, and last month, NASA announced their newest group of eight astronauts – half of them are women. Things have sure changed since I was a kid.


Smile! You’re on Cassini Camera!

What can I say? Amy and I are astronomy geeks through and through.

We couldn’t resist hamming it up for the Cassini camera last Friday. (The signs were Amy’s idea. But then again…I had an aluminum foil hat on my head.)


And of course, we couldn’t resist taking a picture of Cassini at the same momentous moment. It’s there somewhere.


We explained to our husbands that it could have been worse. We could have been posing in THIS picture.


No matter where you were at the moment Cassini snapped this historical photo, here is what Cassini saw from 900 million miles away.
No matter where you were at the moment Cassini snapped this historical photo, here is what  the Earth looked like from 900 million miles away. Amy and I are in that picture somewhere!

It was a great day to be an astronomy geek!


One Small Cut by Obama – One Giant Loss for Mankind

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.


Herschel Space Observatory Goes Dark

The ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory

Between the two of us, Amy and I have started many of the Astronomical League’s Observing Programs. Okay, we’ve started a lot more of them than we’ve finished, but that’s a sign of a curious mind, right?

A few AstroBabe meetings ago, we decided that we would break our “no more programs until we finish the ones we have” rule and go after something big – something that would really stretch our observing abilities. We agreed that it was time to start the Herschel, a really, really long-term project.

Unless you are already familiar with AL’s Herschel Observing Program, you have no idea what a commitment this is. If we knock off one or two Herschel objects a week, then in, oh, maybe 300-400 weeks, we’ll have it done. Yes, it’s a big deal, but on the way to finishing the Herschel program, we’ll also complete the Messier Program and the Binocular Messier Program. Three birds with one giant stone.

It seems ironic that we are beginning this quest just as the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Herschel Space Observatory made its last observation. The Observatory was named after William Herschel, the man who discovered infrared radiation in 1800.

Its mission has been to study the formation of stars and early galaxies, and it has surveyed thousands of galaxies during its four-year mission. The Herschel Observatory made over 35,000 observations and collected more than 25,000 hours worth of scientific data on objects that were previously invisible to us.

Launched by an Ariane 5 rocket on May 14, 2009, the Herschel Observatory has been parked at the second Lagrange point, about 930,000 miles from Earth. The school-bus sized observatory detected infrared wavelengths in a wide range of low temperatures, as low as ten degrees above absolute zero at far-infrared and sub-millimeter wavelengths.

View of the Horsehead Nebula in the constellation Orion by the ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory.

Because heat interfered with its observations, liquid helium was used to chill the temperature of the detectors to nearly absolute zero (-271 Celsius). When it launched, it brought 2,300 liters of this liquid helium along, which weighed 335 kg (739 lbs), nearly 10 percent of its original mass. It has been slowly using up and leaking a bit of that helium everyday.

It had been estimated that the Observatory would run out of helium in late March, but it managed to squeeze one more month of observing beyond that estimate. On April 29, during the spacecraft’s daily communication session with the ground crew in Western Australia, it reported a significant rise in temperature in all of its instruments, which meant it had finally ran out of liquid helium.

The Herschel Observatory’s mission will be carried on by the launch of a number of telescopes with infrared capabilities, including the Japanese Space Agency’s Space Infrared Telescope for Cosmology and Astrophysics (SPICA) telescope (2017), the James Webb Space Telescope (2018), and the ESA’s Ritchey-Chretien telescope (2022).

Until then, there is plenty of data to study. Much of the data the Herschel collected is available through NASA’s Herschel Science Center at There is also more information on the mission itself on the ESA’s own website at

As for the Herschel Observatory itself? Later this month, it will be propelled into a no-return heliocentric orbit where it will take at least 300 years to return to earth on its own. But who knows? Maybe some ambitious future space clean-up crew will collect it and bring it back to Earth and park it in the Smithsonian where our grandchildren can go to see it.


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