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!


Asteroid Observing?

One of my favorite observing nights was a journey Vesta 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 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!


End of the World

99942 apophis
An apartment building-sized asteroid may impact the Earth in 2029 or 2036. With an atmospheric entry of 750 megatons of kinetic energy (compared to the 10 megaton release in Meteor Crater) 99942 Apophis could be a big deal.

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.


Look Out, Here Comes Another NEO – Asteroid QE2!

asteroid20130514-640Picture 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!!

High Priestess of the Desert


End of the World

The “experts” told us all along that Asteroid 2012 DA14 was not going to collide with earth. Nope. Not a chance. It won’t even disturb our willis4communications satellites as it whizzes through their orbits.

But didn’t DA14 make you just a little nervous? Didn’t you wake up last Thursday and think hey – 17,000 miles is just not that far away! It’s like flying from New York to Sydney and back. And it’s 5,000 miles closer than the satellite that feeds my Direct TV dish.

And then you turn on your computer and see all the images coming from central Russia from an event that NASA described as a “tiny asteroid” that created a blast that was equivalent to 300,000 tons of TNT. Wasn’t this all just a little too close for comfort? But as good Americans, we trust authority, and we trust that someone is looking out for us on a planetary scale, so we go on with our busy day.

But if you do just a little research on your own, your confidence will start to whither. “Asteroid Impact Avoidance” is a good phrase to start with in your search engine. You’ll discover that most articles start with what size asteroid will cause extinction-level damage to our biosphere. Then in the next paragraph or so, you’ll be assured that the threat isn’t any more substantial than it was yesterday, and that modern technology has opened up new options to prevent such an event.

Then you’ll read about all these new “options.” Current strategies seem to fall into two categories: destroy or delay – both will require years of warning in order to design, test and build. Destroy is self explanatory, using nuclear bombs or kinetic impactors to fragment an asteroid into pieces that will either miss the earth or burn up in the atmosphere. Delay strategies sound more promising and involve delaying (or advancing) the arrival of an asteroid by seven minutes (the time it takes the earth to travel the distance of one planetary diameter). Delay strategies include things like gravity tractors, rockets, mass drivers and laser cannons – all of which must be flown near the asteroid in order to push it a little off course.

During all my research, I didn’t find an actual “solution” that is parked on a launch pad and ready to go.  All I found were projects, either existing or planned, that will find and catalog all of the tens of thousands of objects that are big enough to cross Earth’s orbit and do substantial damage. But I even question how successful the last 20 years of cataloging have proven to be, considering that DA14 was discovered by a dentist in Spain only a year ago, and nobody at all saw the Russian asteroid coming. Maybe we need to keep cataloging but also spend some money on a real solution.

Personally, I’d sleep a whole lot better knowing that there was a gravity tractor strapped to an atlas rocket somewhere – tested, gassed up and ready to go. But until then, I guess we’ll all just have to just count on Bruce Willis to save the day. I hope someone has his phone number handy.


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