BAN #127: Visit a Colorado observatory, new missions to a comet and Martian moons

July 1, 2019 Issue #127

[Saturn image credit: NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute / Gordan Ugarkovic]

Subscribers guide the telescopes that reveal the cosmos.

Astro Tidbit

A brief synopsis of some interesting astronomy/science news that may be too short for the blog, too long for Twitter, but just right (and cool enough to talk about) for here.

On Friday night (June 28), I gave a talk at The Little Thompson Observatory in Berthoud, Colorado. It was the 20th anniversary of the observatory’s founding, and so they held a private event for people involved, like the founders, the Board, and volunteers who give their time for helping at public events.

[The 24” telescope at the Little Thompson Observatory in Berthoud, Colorado. Credit: Phil Plait]

This is a wonderful observatory! They have incredible telescopes, including a 24” that used to be at Mt. Wilson in California, and was built in 1963 to help map and understand the surface of the Moon in preparation for Apollo. There’s also an 18”, a 6” AstroPhysics ‘scope (this is one of the best optical telescopes you can buy; they are really something), and many smaller ones as well. Over 75,000 people have visited, and they have public nights on the third Friday of every month.

I had a lovely time talking about exoplanets and meeting everyone there. I was invited by my old friend Andrea Schweitzer, who is on the Board of the observatory. She’s one of those friends I’ve had so long we can’t remember how we met… but I’m glad I finally took her up on this offer to visit. Embarrassingly, Little Thompson isn’t that far from where I live, but in all these years I’ve never been.

[Andrea Schweitzer and me next to the 24”.]

But I know I’ll be back. I’d love to have a couple of hours with that 24”, looking at Jupiter, Saturn, a few nebulae and galaxies, and just reusing that muscle memory of pointing a big ‘scope and gazing through an eyepiece of the wonders the Universe provides. I’m pretty sure that’s an offer I won’t wait years to take up.

If you’re in the area during a public night, you should drop by too.

Space news

Space is big. That’s why we call it “space”

I don’t usually write about space missions before they’re launched, for a number of reasons. No, I’m not superstitious and I’m not worried about jinxing them! It’s more that it takes years to design, build, and launch new spacecraft. And then it can take years to get to their targets, and in all that time everyone will have forgotten about how things were when I first wrote the article.

However, a couple of new mission announcements were made that are pretty cool, and worth keeping your eyes on. So I’ll break my tradition. This time.

The first is a European Space Agency mission called Comet Interceptor. It’s the first mission I’ve ever heard of that doesn’t have a specific target yet! The idea is it will to the Earth/Sun L2 point, a spot in space about 1.5 million kilometers from the Earth in the direction away from the Sun. The gravity of the Earth, Sun, and the centripetal acceleration from its orbit all wind up balancing in this spot (along with 4 other such locations), so it’s a good place to sit and wait.

When a new comet with the right properties drops in from the outer solar system, the Interceptor will then fire up, match orbits, and investigate. It’s actually three spacecraft, which can observe the comet from three different vantages and build up a 3D view of what its doing. The target comet they’re looking for will be on its first journey to the inner solar system, having spent billions of years out past Neptune. Such comets come in frequently enough that they should be able to find a good target quickly. Comet Interceptor is tentatively scheduled for launch 2028.

The other mission is part of the Japanese Martian Moons eXplorer mission, set to launch in 2024. The spacecraft has a lot of the usual kinds instruments on it to measure and map the moons Phobos and Deimos, and also has an ambitious sample return aspect as well! That’s pretty cool. But it was just announced that it will also carry a French and German rover, too!

Now, it won’t be like Curiosity or rovers like that. Those moons have very little gravity — they’re only like 20 and 12 km wide — so it’ll probably be more like the ones deployed on the asteroid Ryugu by the Hayabusa 2 mission. Something simple that will literally hop around the surface and take close-up images. That’ll be extremely cool.  We still really don’t understand these moons, and astronomers argue over their origins — captured asteroids, or reaccumulated debris from an impact on Mars, among others — and a mission like this could go a long way to solving this mystery.

I know both these missions are a ways off, but it’s nice to hear about other countries with longer-range plans to explore the solar system. The US is lagging behind seriously in this area, with no planned missions to the outer planets, for example (which is bad because the lag time between designing and launching a big mission can be decades). There are some cool things coming (like Psyche and PUNCH) but it seems that the bigger missions are long ways off still. Hopefully we can convince the government that going out there is important, and it’s not the time for the US to concede its role in this sort of exploration.

Blog Jam

What I’ve recently written on the blog, ICYMI

[We’re going back to Saturn, and we’re doing it with a nuclear powered quadcopter drone named Dragonfly. From Friday’s article. Credit: JHUAPL / Michael Carroll]

Monday June 24, 2019: The warm glow of rings around Uranus

Tuesday June 25, 2019: A lopsided trail of galactic destruction… and construction

Wednesday June 26, 2019: A cosmic blue iris nebula blooms among the brown dust

Thursday June 27, 2019: Tour the Apollo 11 landing site, minute by minute, during that one small step!

Friday June 28, 2019: NASA will be sending a quadcopter called Dragonfly to Titan

Et alia

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