Jupiter Looms as Juno Approaches July 4th Arrival
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The Juno spacecraft has been in the gravitational embrace of the planet Jupiter for a month now, and is quickly approaching the moment it will ignite its thrusters, and enter into orbit over Jupiter’s poles. Juno may have some very interesting things to see, if aurorae spied by the Hubble Space Telescope in recent weeks continue to swirl around Jupiter’s north pole. Follow Juno on July 4 — Orbit Insertion Day: Noon EDT — Pre-orbit insertion briefing at JPL 10:30 p.m. EDT — Orbit insertion and NASA TV commentary begin 1:00 a.m. EDT on July 5 — Post-orbit insertion briefing at JPL Watch all of these events online, at: http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv http://www.ustream.tv/nasa http://www.ustream.tv/nasajpl2 Learn more about the Juno: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/juno … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Forbidden Transitions
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This column was first published in The Tablet in February 2011 Earlier this month [2011], NASA satellites observed a set of flares on the surface of the Sun and predicted that glorious aurorae would soon be visible – a rare sight anywhere in Europe south of Scandinavia. But that was the week I was visiting my brother in northern Michigan, so I resolved to take a moment to look for them. The Northern Lights are a marvelous sight. The easiest to see are sheets of light in the northern sky, moving like curtains in the wind. If they’re bright enough, you can see colors, mostly green, swirling like a light show at a 60’s rock concert. The science behind them is equally fascinating. Electrons and protons burst from the Sun in explosions of an expanding plasma as large as planet Earth. Hot enough to overcome the Sun’s gravity, as they move from the Sun they feel even less gravity; they move further, move … Continue reading

Aurorae and a Possible Saint
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The most recent issue of the Jesuit e-News (the electronic replacement for the National Jesuit News paper) contained a fascinating little note about the beginnings of a movement to begin the process of sainthood for Black Elk, the famous Lakota holy man: A New Native American Saint? Native American laypeople along with Jesuit, diocesan and Episcopalian clergy recently met at Marquette University to discuss furthering the canonization process for the great Lakota (Sioux) holy man and lay catechist, Nicholas Black Elk (1863-1950). Baptized in 1904 by German-born Father Joseph Lindebner, SJ, Black Elk was a revered catechist among his people on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. However, his Catholic identity was not known until 1994 when Jesuit anthropologist Father Michael Steltenkamp wrote “Black Elk: Holy Man of the Oglala.” Jesuits in Native American ministry hope Black Elk’s canonization will follow that of Kateri Tekakwitha, named the first Native American saint in 2012. A petition calling for Black Elk’s … Continue reading

Beneath the Aurora Borealis
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I have seen the Northern Lights in Naperville, Illinois.  Sort of. Not long ago, at a meeting of the Naperville Astronomical Association, I attended a terrific talk by Dr. José Salgado of the Adler Planetarium.   He began by describing a series of astronomy films he and the Adler have made.  Each film has been set to music in a live summertime outdoor performance by an orchestra in downtown Chicago. For his next film in the “Science and Symphony” series, Dr. Salgado wanted to capture the Northern Lights.  The colorful glow of the Aurora Borealis is rarely seen in Chicago.  It’s much more common at higher latitudes, since the Earth’s northern “auroral oval” is a ring, thousands of kilometers across, approximately centered on the North Magnetic Pole.  (There’s another one in the south, but the Antarctic is much less convenient to visit.) So he packed up a lot of camera equipment and flew to Yellowknife, in Canada’s Northwest Territories.  It’s a … Continue reading

MAVEN Detects Aurora and Mysterious Cloud of Dust Around Mars
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NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft has observed two unexpected phenomena in the Martian atmosphere: an unexplained high-altitude dust cloud and aurora that reaches deep into the Martian atmosphere. The presence of the dust at orbital altitudes from about 93 miles (150 kilometers) to 190 miles (300 kilometers) above the surface was not predicted. Although the source and composition of the dust are unknown, there is no hazard to MAVEN and other spacecraft orbiting Mars. “If the dust originates from the atmosphere, this suggests we are missing some fundamental process in the Martian atmosphere,” said Laila Andersson of the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospherics and Space Physics (CU LASP), Boulder, Colorado. The cloud was detected by the spacecraft’s Langmuir Probe and Waves (LPW) instrument, and has been present the whole time MAVEN has been in operation. It is unknown if the cloud is a temporary phenomenon or something long lasting. The cloud density is greatest at lower … Continue reading