Dusted by stars
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I have had Jon Larsen’s  In Search of Stardust on my stack of books to read because last spring the upper division research methods course I taught did an experiment to measure the heat capacities of meteorites, using the method developed by the Vatican Observatory’s Guy Consolmagno, SJ and Bob Macke, SJ and colleagues. The students were curious about the astrochemistry context (where do the samples come from, how can you distinguish regular rocks from these stony aliens) and I’ve been collecting resources for this coming spring when a new batch of students will make these measurements. I tend to think of meteor strikes as spectacular and rare events, fireballs roaring through the sky that finally come crashing to earth.  Still they aren’t as rare was you might think — tens of thousands of meteorites weighing as much or more than a euro coin hit the earth’s surface each year, most of them landing in the water.  It gives me a visceral … Continue reading

A Heartfelt Farewell to NASA’s Cassini Mission to Saturn
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The Cassini mission to Saturn ranks right at the top of my list of favorite space missions; this morning, on NASA TV, I watched Cassini’s final moments as it plunged into the atmosphere of Saturn… and I had a good cry. It’s an odd juxtaposition of feelings: being overjoyed and incredibly sad at the same time. When Cassini launched in 1997, my daughters were aged 12 and 9; my wife likes to recall the story of my phoning my eldest in 2004, then in college, to tell her that Cassini was making its orbital insertion burn! She also claims that I can be “such a geek.” Yesterday, I heard a story on NPR with a NASA engineer that was at the very first Cassini planning meeting – 30 years ago! For several people, this mission has been their entire career! In an interview I heard this morning, one mission specialist said that most of what’s in recent science textbooks about … Continue reading

Become a Volunteer NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador
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NASA/JPL is looking for highly motivated volunteers to communicate the science and excitement of NASA’s space exploration missions and discoveries to the people in their communities. Each September, the volunteer NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program has a recruitment drive for new volunteers; there are currently volunteers from all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Guam, the District of Columbia and the US Virgin Islands. SSAs are required to do a minimum of four events over the year, and log them on the SSA website; events can include: lectures, workshops, star/eclipse parties, hands-on activities, etc. The SSA program hosts frequent teleconferences with NASA scientists, mission specialists, and engineers covering a HUGE range of topics; presentation materials and media for each teleconference are made available for SSAs to use. When it can, the program also provides freebies; my wife and I received 1000 solar glasses and distributed them far and wide before the eclipse. Applicants that are accepted into the program are required to … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Planetary Prejudice
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This column first ran in The Tablet in July 2015 The wonderful excitement about Pluto, visited by the New Horizons spacecraft [July 2015], has resurrected the old issue of defining a “planet”. But why? Most people approaching this question have one clear goal: they want Pluto to be a planet. Once you realize that, you can make your definition clear and simple: “A planet is one of the bodies that I was taught was a planet when I was a child.” Of course, such a definition is useless for any other purposes. The IAU, which defined Pluto and similar bodies as “dwarf planets” back in 2006, needed a definition so it could name such objects and the features on them, to know whose committee and what set of rules will apply. But there’s another aspect to this issue. Fifteen years ago I was involved in a research program studying the Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNO) that orbit alongside Pluto, comparing their shapes … Continue reading

Proclaiming the Heavens
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Since February, our daily readership here at the Catholic Astronomer site has doubled. That’s the good news. However, the number of folks who are subscribers or member/supporters hasn’t doubled. A lot of people read this site via the Vatican Observatory Foundation Facebook page, which is great. But you may not realize that we depend on paying supporters of the blog to keep this site operating. We pay each of our bloggers – not much, but enough to maintain the principle that writers deserve an income, the laborer is worthy of a wage. (1 Timothy 5:18, for those Catholics in the audience who don’t know their scripture!) And there are other technical support costs. Only your donations can keep this operation moving. Of course, what I am hoping is that any donations above our costs (which, thankfully, we do have) can grow to become a major support for the work of the Vatican Observatory Foundation. It takes a lot of money … Continue reading

From The Tablet: Big Science, Hurrah!
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This article was first published in The Tablet in July, 2012 “How will the discovery of the Higgs Boson impact the Catholic Scientific Community?” asked one panicked email I received soon after CERN announced its discovery. “How can the new discovery and our belief be reconciled?” So many misconceptions in one email… where to start? Emails like this, not to mention all sorts of press inquiries, came to us at the Vatican Observatory following the announcement by CERN that they had detected a “a new particle in the mass region around 126 GeV… the results are preliminary but dramatic… we know it is a boson and it’s the heaviest boson ever found.” The press, if not the scientists, immediately jumped on the news, calling it the discovery of the Higgs Boson (something that the CERN press release was careful not to do) which they inevitably referred to as “The God Particle.” Right away, the internet was filled with instant pundits giving opinions … Continue reading

Could “Planet Nine” be Considered a Planet?
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I got to wondering: given the International Astronomical Union’s (IAU) current definition of a planet, if a hypothesized “Planet Nine” were to be found in the outer reaches of our solar system, could it (or anything in that region) be considered “a planet?” The IAU definition of a planet is a celestial body that: (a) is in orbit around the Sun. (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape. (c) has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit. An astronomical units (AU) is a unit of measurement equal to the mean distance from the center of the earth to the center of the sun – 149.6 million kilometers. The Kuiper belt is a disc-shaped region of icy bodies in the solar system – including dwarf planets such as Pluto – and comets beyond the orbit of Neptune. It extends from about 30 to 55 AU. A trans-Neptunian object (TNO) is any … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Fast changes
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This column first ran in The Tablet in June 2013 Summer began [in 2013] on Friday morning, 21 June, at 5:14 am GMT…in the northern hemisphere, of course; south of the equator, it’s winter. [The summer solstice 2017 in Northern Hemisphere occurred at 4:24 am GMT on Wednesday, June 21.] This definition is based on the precise orientation of the Earth in its orbit. The Earth is tilted relative to its orbit, and like a gyroscope its spin axis stays pointed in the same direction, year round. In a convenient coincidence for navigators, our north pole is pointed near the star Polaris. Polaris is not directly above the Sun; it’s directly above Earth’s tilted spin axis. In June, the Earth is in the part of its orbit where it’s on one side of the Sun, and Polaris is on the other side. The northern half of the Earth, tilted towards Polaris, is also tilted towards the Sun; that’s why it gets warmer. The … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Of stars and sheep
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This column first ran in The Tablet in June 2015 ‘Today we can illuminate our cities so brightly that the stars of the sky are no longer visible. Is this not an image of the problems caused by our version of enlightenment? With regard to material things, our knowledge and our technical accomplishments are legion, but what reaches beyond, the things of God and the question of good, we can no longer identify.’ — Pope Benedict XVI At Notre Dame University [in June 2015], Katharine Mahon, a doctoral student in theology, reminded me of this passage from Pope Benedict’s Easter 2012 homily. One of the striking hallmarks of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, was how it was rooted in the theology and writings of his predecessors, like the passage above. Just as our badly-overlit cities blind us to the stars, our desire to wrap ourselves in the soft wool of technology insulates us from the reality of … Continue reading

Asteroid Day 2017
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It’s June, Asteroid Day approaches! Asteroid Day is a global coalition of scientists, astronauts, physicists, artists, musicians and concerned citizens that have come together to focus the world’s attention on the nature of asteroids, and the solutions that could protect all life on Earth from future asteroid impacts, and inspire the next generation. Since the summer of 2015, worldwide Asteroid Day events have been held on June 30th, the date of the historic Tunguska Impact Event of 1908. The founders of Asteroid Day drafted the 100X Declaration. In short: Over the last decade and a half, we’ve discovered a LOT of near-Earth asteroids, and continue to do so. Some of these asteroids can potentially impact the Earth. Some of these asteroids are large enough that an impact would be “a bad thing.” We need to accelerate the discovery and tracking of Near-Earth Asteroids to 100,000 per year within the next ten years. We need to get government, private and philanthropic organizations … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Song of Praise
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This column first ran in The Tablet in May 2016 When Pope Francis issued his groundbreaking encyclical, Laudato Sì, the Italian publishing house Elledici took the moment to reissue a book written in the 1960s by the Italian scientist Enrico Medi: Canitco di Frate Sole, a meditation on the Franciscan poem that gave Pope Francis his title. At that time, they asked me as the “Pope’s astronomer” to write an introduction for the book. On first anniversary of the Pope’s encyclical, in 2016, I was invited to Medi’s home town of Senigalia, on the Adriatic coast, to celebrate the publication of this book. I’d never heard of Medi; but I discovered that he was the spokesperson of his generation in Italy on faith and science. Reading his words, even with my poor Italian, I can see why. For example, in one chapter Medi begins with our scientific understanding of water as a marvelous molecule, but he arrives at finding in … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Shapes of Things
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This column first ran in The Tablet in May 2015 In May of 2015, the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory of the University of Arizona honored the retirement of Dr. Randy Jokipii, Regent’s Professor of Planetary Sciences… and the man who directed my doctoral dissertation. It’s customary at such events to downplay the scientific work of the honoree, and praise instead the “life lessons” taught. But Randy was not my father, my pastor, or my guru; he taught me physics. I chose to work for him for the simple reason that I thought he was the smartest guy in the department. (I still think so.) His field, cosmic ray physics, was far from what I had done before… or since. That was another attraction: I wanted to be challenged to learn new stuff. I got what I wanted. Under his direction I spent two years applying techniques that he’d invented for tracing cosmic rays in solar system magnetic fields, to the … Continue reading