Across the Universe: Rocket Science
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This column first ran in The Tablet in April 2012 “This isn’t rocket science…” It’s a common reproach, heard when we make a simple task too complex. Of course, making a rocket work is not science; it’s engineering. The difference between the two is like the difference between theology and liturgy. Both are important, and each informs the other, but it’s dangerous (in both directions) to substitute the one for the other. Another flaw in the cliché is that it assumes launching a rocket is the height of complexity. In fact, it’s a well-understood piece of engineering. Today’s rockets are marvelous pieces of machinery, and getting it right can indeed be harder than it looks (see the recent failure of North Korea’s attempt). But the basic principles are nothing new. The rockets that lift supplies to the International Space Station today are Soviet designs dating from the cold war, more than half a century old. The issue, as the North Koreans … Continue reading

Cosmic Lobster Pot
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I have always visualised Cassini’s journey through the Saturnian system as a kind of orchestrated cosmic dance. Cassini moves silently at great speed in its petal shape overlapping orbits. This precisely executed dance brings Cassini frequently through the icy ring plane north to south and then back again on the opposite side of the planet, south to north. This robot ship continues on its unparalleled odyssey of exploration. On board, Cassini is the custodian of twelve science instruments all primed to seek, gather, and process the offerings of this unique planetary system. Collectively they are performing one of the most important scientific probing of Saturn and its many moons in the history of space exploration. One of these science instruments is the Cosmic Dust Analyser. The CDA looks a bit like a golden lobster pot,that is not a bad analogy. This apparatus is trawling the interplanetary ocean for particles of cosmic dust, tiny particles that are the messengers of the … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Spotting Ceres
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This column first ran in The Tablet in March 2015 Ceres was the first body found in the region between Mars and Jupiter now called the Asteroid Belt. In the late 1700s Titius and Bode had noted a pattern in planet positions that suggested there should be a planet in the gap between Mars and Jupiter; on New Year’s Day of 1801, Father Giuseppi Piazzi found Ceres from his observatory in Sicily. They expected a planet, so that’s what they called Ceres – though William Herschel, who had just discovered the gas giant Uranus, sniffed that such a tiny dot of light was neither planet nor star (Latin, “aster”) but a mere “asteroid.” Only fifty years later, when a number of other such small bodies had been found, did Ceres and the other asteroids get “demoted” to the status of “minor planet.” (And later work showed that the Titius-Bode pattern which predicted a planet at Ceres’ position was actually just … Continue reading

Grand Finale – Painting inspired by the Cassini Mission to Saturn
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Also in Exploring the Solar System Exploring the Solar System: The Mass of the Sun Marvellous Mars Drawing Workshop at Dunsink Observatory Dublin Astronomical Sketching – Education in action Stars Wonderful Stars at Wexford Town Library Ireland Get ready the Perseids are coming Space the final Frontier – World Space Week 2016 On the richness of the lunar surface Dark Sky Magic at Ballycroy National Park Mayo Ireland Grand Finale – Painting inspired by the Cassini Mission to Saturn Cosmic Lobster Pot View the entire series … Continue reading

Exoplanet Extravaganza
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Exoplanet news has been all the buzz since the announcement of seven Earth-sized planets orbiting a red dwarf star 39 light-years away from Earth – that’s 229 trillion miles or 369 trillion kilometers. Three of those worlds orbit within that star’s habitable zone, increasing their likelihood of supporting life. Two hours after the announcement, I discussed with students in the Endeavour Space Academy, what exoplanets are, exoplanet detection methods, and the thousands of exoplanets found to date. The questions I got mirror those I’ve seen asked online: Can we go there? Well, there are a lots of gotchas to that question. At our current level of technology, and using the fastest object humans have created as a baseline, it would take well over 100,000 years to reach this star system; Remember: “Space is big. Really big!” Speaking of “we,” what will modern-day humans have evolved into after 100,000 years? Could life exist there? It’s certainly possible. With the discovery of … Continue reading

Bringing Mars to Earth – Educational Outreach
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  Mars is an extraordinary planet , its textures and exquisite beauty have been brought to Earth by the images of HiRise on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter . Curiosity gives us a ground eye view as it drove through Gale crater and on to Mount Sharp. From Earth by eye Mars is but a tiny pink dot , in small telescopes it becomes a slightly larger pink dot . It is not easy to see detail on Mars for most people. My best views were in the South refractor at Dunsink Observatory and through a friend’s 16 inch Schmidt Cassegrain.The polar caps stood out in the 16 inch while the 11.75 inch objective at Dunsink showed a hint of dark areas on the predominantly rusty pink planet body. Of course Martian dust storms and the quality of our sky has a lot to do with seeing any detail at all. Pointing out Mars in the sky for public groups and children’s … Continue reading

Curiosity Rover Examines Possible Mud Cracks Preserved in Martian Rock
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I saw this image and immediately thought: dried mud; then I saw where the image came from: the Curiosity Rover on Mars! Reports of water having once flowed in Mars’ ancient past, currently flowing seasonally, and as sub-surface ices have been numerous over the past few years. On Earth, “where there’s water, there’s life;” and water has been found everywhere in the solar system. The Mars 2020 rover will have scientific instruments used to search for signs of past life on the red planet. From JPL Press Release 2017-009: Scientists used NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover in recent weeks to examine slabs of rock cross-hatched with shallow ridges that likely originated as cracks in drying mud. “Mud cracks are the most likely scenario here,” said Curiosity science team member Nathan Stein. He is a graduate student at Caltech in Pasadena, California, who led the investigation of a site called “Old Soaker,” on lower Mount Sharp, Mars. If this interpretation holds up, these would be … Continue reading

Titan: Frozen Moon of Saturn
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It’s hard to believe that it’s been 12 years since the Huygens probe touched down on the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan – the only moon in the solar system with a dense atmosphere and clouds. The probe returned images of rugged terrain as it descended, and revealed what appears to be drainage channels flowing down to a possible shoreline. The lander returned data for about 90 minutes after touchdown. Huygens is the most distant landing of any human-made craft. The Huygens lander was part of the Cassini mission to Saturn; the mission was so successful, it was extended in 2008, and again in 2010. The spacecraft has flown by numerous moons, and returned a treasure trove of scientific data; it has also returned some of the most spectacular imagery ever produced by a robotic probe. Cassini is now in its final months at Saturn, with the probe slated to burn up on Saturn’s atmosphere this September. From JPL Press Release 2017-006: 2005 Historic Descent … Continue reading

Endeavour Space Academy
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I cannot remember a time when I haven’t been fascinated with astronomy, the space program, and science fiction. I was a child during the Apollo era, and a young man when the original COSMOS first aired. I cut my teeth on Star Trek, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Larry Niven; Carl Sagan was, and remains to this day, my personal hero. Now that I think about it, I started doing astronomy outreach the moment I got my first cheap telescope in 1968; I showed the Moon, Jupiter, and Saturn to the neighbors, and took it with me to summer camp. I had one of those really scary green glass eyepiece solar filters – that got used a lot more than I like to think about! My wife gave me an 8″ Dobsonian telescope for my 40th birthday, that came with a not-scary-at-all solar filter; that telescope has seen a LOT of use in 16 years – so much so, it’s … Continue reading

Spacecraft 3D: NASA’s Augmented Reality Smartphone App
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NASA has an app for smartphones that lets you learn about and interact with several different spacecraft that explore our solar system, study the Earth, and observe the cosmos. You can hold a virtual Mars rover in the palm of your hand, or watch as a rocket’s boosters fall away, and its fairing separate! Seeing the Curiosity rover popup in my hand, and being able to rotate it, zoom, and deploy its mast – using my Android – just blew me away! I think students would LOVE this! If you have an iOS/Android phone,download Spacecraft 3D now and experience #AugmentedReality! https://t.co/gPQPe62z6k pic.twitter.com/8RuPfOZktS — : NASA_Eyes (@nasa_eyes) December 8, 2016 A photo target must be used for the app to generate the spacecraft model; the photo can be small enough to fit in your hand, or printed larger for use on a tabletop. The app can email you a link to the AR target (http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/apps/images/3dtarget.pdf) which includes some cool Mars pics … Continue reading

Dark Sky Magic at Ballycroy National Park Mayo Ireland
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“The sky calls to us. If we do not destroy ourselves, we will one day venture to the stars.” – Carl Sagan There is something deeply magical about a truly dark night sky. Objects that you would strain to see or not see at all in suburbia populate every eye movement. Peripheral vision fine tunes to a state of high alert with ease. Observing rewards even before dark adaption. My visit to Ballycroy National Park in Co Mayo reminded me of so many holidays in the west of Ireland long ago when our children were young. After a day of extreme foggy conditions across the whole country I was not expecting to see any stars at all. Shortly after my talk we went outside to check up on things. Even with some small lights on in the visitors centre the sky was mind-blowing. Ballycroy National Park I had been introduced to Georgia MacMillan from the Mayo Dark Skies team by … Continue reading

Cassini’s Final Months at Saturn
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NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn is in its final months. The spacecraft has been put into a polar orbit which brings it over Saturn’s poles, and very close to the main rings. Cassini has sent back spectacular views of  Saturn’s north polar region shortly before it made its first close pass by the outer edge of Saturn’s main rings. In late April, Cassini will again change its orbit, bringing the spacecraft between Saturn’s innermost ring, and its cloudtops. These orbits send tingles through my spine when I think about them; there is a chance that a ring particle might impact the spacecraft, rendering it nonfunctional. According to NASA Eyes on the Solar System, when Cassini passes through the ring plane from now through April, it will be travelling at 21 km/sec. When it changes orbit in late April, and gets closer to Saturn, it will be passing over the cloudtops at about 34 km/sec. If Cassini survives all its passes … Continue reading