Marching to Mars


Roughly seven months ago the U.S., China and United Arab Emirates took advantage of favourable Earth/Mars orbit to launch missions to Mars. Over the next two weeks all three, one orbiter and two landers will reach Mars. Ponder the enormity of three nations, three separate missions congregating at Mars within days of each other. Who knew the UAE has a space program? Why is China poking at Mars? How many people still believe space exploration starts and ends with NASA? Who even knows how many separate space missions are active?

The UAE arrives first on February 9th. The EMM (Emirates Mars Mission) probe Amal is an orbiter tasked with collecting atmospheric data. The UAE space program is an initiative to advance science and technology rather than reliance on oil. The very next day China’s Tianwen-1, a dual orbiter/lander mission settles into orbit. If all goes well, Tianwen-1 will deploy its solar powered lander sometime in May. This is China’s second attempt to deploy a Mars lander, their 2011 joint venture with Russia failed. On February 18 NASA’s Perseverance Rover skips orbit for immediate deployment to the Jezero Crater, an ancient river delta which flowed into a lake. NASA is the only space agency to successfully land on Mars. (Eight times since 1976 )

Mars: Three new space missions are about to reach the Red Planet – here’s what you need to know (yahoo.com)

The Apollo era cemented universal cosmic wonder. The enormity of space travel, realization of science fiction becoming reality resonated with collective astonishment. Tonight I write of three autonomous Mars missions arriving within days of each other knowing full well most people aren’t interested. Today, cosmic wonder languishes in a puddle of competing click bait, occasionally bubbling to the surface when news feeds pluck near Earth asteroid calamity froth. Missions to Mars aren’t enough to attract clicks and views. Cosmic wonder suffers in silence.

Planet Patrol Wants You


Calling all citizen scientists, Planet Patrol wants you. NASA, SETI, the Space Science Telescope Institute and Zooniverse collaborated to launch Planet Patrol, a website urging citizen scientists to help find exoplanets. Planet Patrol site explains –

“NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission will take pictures of more than a million stars to search for planets orbiting them, called ‘transiting exoplanets.’ We expect this mission will see thousands of these transiting exoplanets when they pass in front of nearby stars and periodically block some of the starlight.

But sometimes when a star dims like that, it’s not because of a planet. Variable stars, eclipsing binary stars, blended stars, glitches in the data, etc., can cause a similar effect. We need your help to spot these imposters!

At Planet Patrol, you’ll help us check the data from the TESS mission, one image at a time, to make sure that objects we suspect are planets REALLY are planets.”

In a nutshell – anyone with a little spare time, set of fresh eyes and impetus to participate in cosmic discovery can be a citizen scientist. How cool would it be to identify a exoplanet? Check out the link below –

https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/marckuchner/planet-patrol/

Long curving line of varied planets with stars in background.
Scientists have discovered over 4,000 exoplanets so far, of many different kinds, as represented in this artist’s concept. With the public’s help, they should find many more as well. Image via NASA/ JPL-Caltech/ R. Hurt (SSC-Caltech).

Read https://earthsky.org/space/exoplanets-nasas-planet-patrol-citizen-science?utm_source=EarthSky+News&utm_campaign=40df63514c-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_02_02_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_c643945d79-40df63514c-393970565 for more details. To date 3,968 citizen scientists are on board. What are you waiting for?

Follow Perseverance In Real Time


NASA launched Mars Rover Perseverance on July 30, 2020. Barring unforeseen calamity a six month journey culminating on February 18, 2021. Tasked with astrobiology as its key objective, Perseverance is primed to search for evidence of ancient microbial life. A specialized toolbox containing state of the art X-ray fluorescence technology is designed to map chemistry of dust and rock, hopefully identifying traces of ancient microbial fossils.

https://www.nasa.gov/feature/jpl/nasas-new-mars-rover-will-use-x-rays-to-hunt-fossils

Anyone who’s watched The Martian movie has an inkling of how far away Mars is. Theoretically the closest Earth and Mars can be is 54.6 million kilometers – sweet spot with Mars at perihelion (closest orbit to the Sun), Earth at aphelion (farthest orbit from Sun), but that’s never happened in recorded history. Closest recorded distance happened in 2003 at 56 million kilometers. At their farthest distance apart on opposite sides of the Sun, it’s a staggering 401 million kilometers between Earth and Mars. Average distance is 225 million km.

I can tell you light travels at 299,792 km/second. At closest possible distance, light from Mars would reach Earth in 3.03 minutes. Closest recorded approach is 3.11 minutes, 22.4 minutes at farthest approach, average time for Mars shine to reach Earth – 12.5 minutes. At 58,000 km/hour NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto was the fasted spacecraft ever launched. At that speed a spacecraft travelling in a straight line to Mars at closest approach would arrive in 39 days. Don’t get excited, the average is 162 days. Perseverance is travelling at 39,600 km per hour.

Daunting as distance and velocity might be, NASA created a interactive app to follow Perseverance in real time. https://eyes.nasa.gov/apps/orrery/#/sc_perseverance

Zoom in, zoom out, be one with Perseverance or peer at it from Pluto’s perspective. Once you get the hang of it, a cosmic pondering delight.

Drum-shaped spacecraft in space with orbits of planets shown in background.

Follow the 2020 Mars mission in real time here. Fully interactive, Eyes on the Solar System lets you track Perseverance in real time as it travels to Mars. Give Perseverance a spin, or use controls on pop-up menus to customize just what you see, from faraway to right “on board.” Image via NASA/ JPL-Caltech.

U.S. Election Day Asteroid Hysteria


Trust internet jibber-jabber to spark cosmic hysteria. Armageddon click bait drools over any opportunity to create viral asteroid calamity. Today it’s asteroid 2018 VP1, a 2 meter rock with 0.4% chance of entering our atmosphere on November 2nd.

See the source image

First identified on November 3,  2018 at Palomar Observatory in California at a distance of 450,000 Km from Earth,  2018 VP1 was observed for 12.9 days. It hasn’t been seen since. NASA scientists at JPL Horizons used distance, angle and speed to calculate a two year orbit. Pipsqueak 2018 VP1 is expected to return on or about November 3, 2020. A lot can happen in two years after only 12.9 days of observation, enter LOV, the line of variation. LOV dictates orbital swing from direct impact to unremarkable pass-by 3.7 million Km away.  Either way,  2018 VP1 doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. Too small to classify as a PHA (potentially hazardous asteroid), so small that atmosphere would fry it long before surface contact.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2018_VP1

I’m all for cosmic awareness, delight in media coverage off all things space. That said, few things frost me more than doomsday internet froth promoting cosmic annihilation.

Detected 6 Hours After the Fact


On August 16, 2020 undetected asteroid 2020 QG swept past Earth at a distance of 2,900 Km. Described as “truck size” ( 20 feet, 3-6 meters across ), traveling at 12.4 Km per second, 2020 QG approached from a sunward direction. Reason why astronomers didn’t see it until six hours later. Despite post event assurance there was never any danger, it’s sobering to ponder fragility of our existence. Asteroid 2020 QG now holds the record for closest “known” asteroid to pass without an Earth strike.

Animated image of tiny object passing Earth.

View larger. | This illustration shows asteroid 2020 QG’s trajectory bending during its close approach to Earth. The asteroid is the closest known nonimpacting asteroid ever detected. Image via NASA/ JPL-Caltech.

Small Earth, with green line going past it bent around where it comes nearest Earth, and also the moon's orbit shown.

View larger. | The blue ball in the lower left of this image represents Earth. The curved green arrow represents asteroid 2020 QG, whose orbit was changed by its near-Earth encounter on Sunday. The tick marks on the green line represent 30-minute intervals. You can see that this asteroid was really zooming past! Image via Minor Planet Center.

Truck-sized asteroid swept within 2,000 miles on Sunday

Science admits “gaps” in detection of sunward approaching asteroids. Current telescopes can only detect asteroids at night. When identified, orbit is calculated to determine potential for a future collision. Rather clunky if you ask me. NASA is in early stage development of a telescope to detect asteroids and comets coming from the Sun’s direction. If all goes well and funding remains in place, the Near-Earth Object Surveillance Mission could be operational by 2025.

For now all we can do is hope incoming sunward objects aren’t pesky enough to unleash calamity.

Not Too Late to Ponder Comet NEOWISE


On March 27, 2020 C/2020 F3 was discovered by astronomers at WISE (Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer), a NASA space telescope launched in 2009. – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wide-field_Infrared_Survey_Explorer . On March 31, 2020 it gained official comet status, April 1, 2020 saw it dubbed comet NEOWISE. In a nutshell comets are cosmic objects comprised of ice, dust and space gak presenting a observable tail courtesy close orbital proximity to the Sun. (hence, ice melt)  NEOWISE, current darling of space and common observers alike, made closest approach to the Sun on July 3, 2020. The rest is history, history which won’t be repeated until NEOWISE returns in 6,800 years.

Comet NEOWISE is a rare naked eye cosmic spectacle. A remarkably bright experience afforded Northern Hemisphere residents willing to find a dark place, look northwest after sunset toward the Big Dipper to catch a glimpse of NEOWISE.

https://www.space.com/comet-neowise-strange-facts.html?utm_source=Selligent&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=9155&utm_content=SDC_Newsletter+&utm_term=3580249&m_i=dStOzCRRSVnQXbejZr4A4D0CjNmLoDniLEav%2BJqEI19uyt1Z%2BawSQE9xCCP7rAta4J4Z08SYh53ttnROnALyZpoYwJSMJNhcIVdLI_dddc

NEOWISE-F3-July-4-2020-Chris-Schur-S.jpg (1140×712)

 

See the source image

https://www.ibtimes.com/nasa-offers-tips-how-see-visible-comet-neowise-3012079

 

Juno


On August 5, 2011 NASA’s Juno mission left Earth orbit, destination Jupiter. The farthest space probe ever to be powered by solar arrays, Juno arrived in orbit around Jupiter on July 4, 2016. Every 53 days Juno completes one orbit of Jupiter. Close orbital passes are called perijoves, from the Greek word peri which means near. Images from Juno’s latest close approach, ( perijove 25 completed on February 27, 2020 ) were made public this week by NASA.

Blue ball with white swirls.

Jupiter at mid-northern latitudes as seen by Juno during Perijove 25. The small, round, swirly spots are storms in Jupiter’s atmosphere. Image via NASA/ JPL-Caltech/ SwRI/ MSSS/ Kevin M. Gill.

And now, a word from Juno at Jupiter

Ponder timelapse from JunoCam –

 

Pale Blue Dot Revisited


Thirty years ago today, February 14, 1990 – NASA spacecraft Voyager 1 looked back from Saturn to capture the Pale Blue Dot.

An image of bluish space, with streaks of sunlight crossing it, and with a single dot - Earth - within one of the sunbeams.

In this image from Voyager 1 – acquired on February 14, 1990, from a distance slightly past the orbit of Saturn – Planet Earth is visible as a bright speck within the sunbeam, just right of center. Earth appears softly blue. It occupies less than a single pixel in this image and thus is not fully resolved. Image via NASA.

As Voyager 1 approached Saturn, mission control planned to conserve power by shutting down imaging cameras. Astronomer Carl Sagan had an idea – before shutdown look back at planet Earth. Six billion kilometers across the cosmos Voyager 1 immortalized the Pale Blue Dot.

Today, 30th anniversary of the Pale Blue Dot

On this 30th anniversary, every last one of us should take a moment to ponder Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot –

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” – Carl Sagan