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

Newly Named Asteroids: Mar. 12, 2017
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The March 2017 IAU Minor Planet Center circular returned to its regular format, containing: errata, new observatory codes, deleted observations, new identifications, thousands of observation records, and several new names for minor planets. Numerous finalists from the US who participated in the 2016 Broadcom MASTERS math and science competition for middle school students were given named asteroids, as well as Noam Chomsky, the city of Mansfield in Germany, the Mekong and Thames rivers, the Chimborazo volcano, Tai Chi instructor Tam Yiu, and several others. (624) Hektor I = Skamandrios Discovered 2006 July 21 by F. Marchis et al.at Mauna Kea. Skamandrios was the son of Andromache and Hektor, who was a Trojan prince and the greatest fighter for Troy in the Trojan War. (7202) Kigoshi = 1995 DX1 Discovered 1995 Feb. 19 at Ojima. Kunihiko Kigoshi (1919–2014) was a cosmo-geochemist and emeritus professor at Gakushuin University. One of his pioneering works was the development of the radiocarbon dating method, both … Continue reading

New Named Asteroids – Feb. 12, 2017
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The day before the 4th anniversary of the Chelyabinsk meteor strike, the IAU Minor Planet Center released a new circular: this one, however, contains only the citations for newly names minor planets – it is completely devoid of the usual list of asteroid and comet observations. Here are the new named minor planets for Feb. 12, 2017: (6117) Brevardastro = 1985 CZ1 Discovered 1985 Feb. 12 by H. Debehogne at the European Southern Observatory. Brevard is a county on the east coast of Florida and is known as the “space coast”. Brevard county is the home of the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, where many of the early manned space flights originated. The Brevard Astronomical Society is a very active amateur astronomy community in Brevard county. (6118) Mayubosh = 1986 QX3 Discovered 1986 Aug. 31 by H. Debehogne at the European Southern Observatory. There is a Japanese poem whose subject is Mt. Bizan in the Manyosyu, an anthology of the Nara Era. … Continue reading

New Named Asteroids – Jan. 12, 2017
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Each month (or thereabouts), the IAU Minor Planet Center publishes a PDF document containing an extensive list of asteroid and comet observations. At the bottom of this document is a list of newly named asteroids. Asteroids have been named after: scientists (Br. Guy Consolmagno, Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson) and fictional characters (Sauron, Achilles), cities (Barcelona, Chicago), and entertainers (Freddie Mercury, Monty Python, Wil Wheaton), science and engineering fair winning students, and space mission specialists (a boatload of OSIRIS-REx mission team members got asteroids named after them). The Warren Astronomical Society and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific both have asteroids named after them. While doing research for my lecture on asteroids, I got to know an astronomer who worked at the Catalina Sky Survey; through him, I was able to get an asteroid named after my wife: 117852 Constance (2005 JG151). Each citation is allowed a short description of the recipient; sometimes it can be difficult to extol the virtues of … Continue reading

Across the Universe: The New Paganism
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The following column was published in The Tablet in November 2009 You will know the end-times by their signs, we’re told in the Gospel readings at this time of year. Given the nature of those signs, mostly dramatic events in the sky, you can imagine the kinds of questions that are typically addressed to those of us who study meteorite falls. The apocalyptic visions in the Gospels bear a certain resemblance to our understanding of the destruction that an asteroid impact would produce. Is it mere coincidence? Do I have any advice for the fearful? Yes: read the Gospel passages in their context as lessons on how to live, not how we’ll die. Meanwhile, quit smoking and wear your seat belt. That said, what does science tell us about the end of the world? We know that our solar system has a finite lifetime. Stars like our Sun can only shine for about ten billion years before they run out of … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Featureless Features
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At the end of September 2016, Rosetta finally ended its mission by crashing into its comet. This column, about an earlier aspect of the Rosetta mission, first appeared in The Tablet in October 2010   Back in July [2010], ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft, en route to a comet rendezvous in 2014, flew past asteroid Lutetia, a 100 km pile of rock orbiting between Mars and Jupiter. The result of that encounter was a hot topic of both the European Planetary Science Conference in Rome in September and a meeting of American planetary astronomers in Pasadena in October [2010]. Studying asteroids has always been challenging. Even in the largest telescopes they’re mere dots of light, too small to show any shapes, much less surface details. We can only infer their nature from the most subtle of hints: how their brightness varies as they spin, how much infrared light they radiate, their visible and infrared colours. Minerals that contain iron oxide or water reveal themselves by … Continue reading

Asteroid Day 2016
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June 30th – the date of the historic Tunguska Impact Event of 1908. Dr. Carl Sagan introduced me to Tunguska in his 1980’s COSMOS series. I’ve done the same for quite a few members of the public, and students over the years. June 30th is also the date of this year’s second annual worldwide Asteroid Day. In 2013, a relatively small asteroid exploded over a densely populated city in Russia – blowing out windows, damaging buildings, and injuring almost two thousand people. A group was organized – their goal was simple: to make every human on earth aware of asteroids, to urge world governments and space agencies to ramp-up asteroid detection programs, and begin creation of planetary defense and impact mitigation programs. This group crafted a declaration, and got a significant number of very well-known individuals to sign-on: As scientists and citizens, we strive to solve humanity’s greatest challenges to safeguard our families and quality of life on Earth in … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Grain of truth
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This column first ran in The Tablet in June, 2010. Travel, a favorite summer pastime, carries with it certain social perils. After I came back from my Peace Corps service, it was astonishing how often I would find myself uttering “when I was in Africa…” as every conversation would seem to trigger some memory I just had to share. Ten years later I added “when I was in Antarctica” to my repertoire. Thank God for patient friends. I recall telling a colleague about a star-gazing trip I was planning to Australia in August. He lamented that his only trip there was cloudy the entire week, so he didn’t get a chance to see any of the southern stars. “The only time I remember ever getting to see the Southern Cross was out Shuttle’s porthole…” One-upped by an astronaut! (Thanks, Tom Jones.) But even my astronaut friend has not had a voyage like the space probe Hayabusa. Launched by the Japanese Space Agency in … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Gift of Tongues
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This column first ran in The Tablet in May, 2012 “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?” We heard that reading a week ago, celebrating the feast of the Ascension. At least, I think that’s what I heard; [in 2012], it was in Japanese, in the small cathedral in Niigata, during an international meeting on asteroids, comets, and meteors. Why do we astronomers stand about, looking at the sky? We heard a number of reasons. One scientist described Nasa’s ambitions to send astronauts to asteroids passing near the Earth. Their expressed reasons involve science (where do asteroids, and we, come from?); resources (commercial efforts to exploit asteroids); and planetary safety (how do we nudge an asteroid out of a collision path with Earth?). The unspoken motivation is political: astronauts at an asteroid is the kind of project that is both exciting and achievable, a reason for voters to support NASA’s budget. We know right now … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Treasure from Heaven
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This column first ran in The Tablet in May, 2009 Above the Arizona sky the night of October 5, 2008, a faint moving dot of light was captured in the Skywatch telescope. Soon its orbit was calculated, showing that this newly discovered asteroid, 2008 TC3, had only 20 hours left before it was to hit the Earth. Two dozen teams of astronomers made every possible use of that time, measuring its colors and changing brightness as it spun across the sky, and further refining its orbital path. On the morning of October 7 (local time), a tumbling lump the size of a white van struck the sky over northern Sudan. Seven months later, in a quiet conference room in Prague, Peter Jenniskens told a rapt audience of bolide and meteorite specialists (I was one) the story of what happened next. Through e-mails to friends and colleagues, this Dutch-American meteor specialist had made contact with a geologist at the University of … Continue reading

Across the Universe: False Economies
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This column first ran in The Tablet in March 2009 “Astronomers Are Just As Dumb As Economists” cried the headline on the “Business Insider” website. The author, Eric Falkenstein, who writes a blog on hedge funds and other mysteries of the universe, was reacting to an earlier editorial on the site which had complained of government officials who, they asserted, seemed to think that the current economic recession was “like a giant asteroid, something completely unrelated to our own doing that just happened to hit us.” But Mr. Falkenstein noted, “an asteroid hit it” is in fact a favorite explanation of planetary scientists for nearly every anomaly in the solar system. Mercury has an unusually iron core? An asteroid hit it, blasting off much of its rocky mantle. Venus spins far slower, and in the opposite sense, compared to the other planets? Blame an asteroid strike. A giant impact is the current favorite theory for the formation of Earth’s Moon; … Continue reading

Three Years Since Chelyabinsk
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It has been three years since an asteroid exploded in the clear morning sky over a heavily populated city in the southern Ural region. 20-30 times the energy of the Hiroshima atomic bomb was released in the explosion, the invisible shock wave crashing into the ground several minutes later, shattering windows over a wide region. Hundreds of people were injured by flying glass shards, and thousands of buildings were damaged. As asteroids go, the Chelyabinsk meteoroid was small and unremarkable: measuring about 20 meters in diameter, stony in composition, and weighing-in at about 12,000 metric tonnes. It approached the Earth unseen, and entered the Earth’s atmosphere at a shallow angle, traveling at almost 60 times the speed of sound. Friction with the upper atmosphere caused plasma to build up, and the meteoroid took on the aspects of a classic fireball: arcing brightly across the sky, and leaving a smokey contrail. Suddenly, the fireball exploded, becoming intensely bright for a few … Continue reading