BAN #73: Solar astronomy, iceball flyby

December 24, 2018   Issue #73

Subscribers are the jingle in my bells.


Astro Tidbit 1

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.

I don’t know why this surprised me, since it seems like such an obvious thing to do in retrospect, but: The European Space Agency’s 35-meter Deep Space Antenna 1 gets fully one-third of its power from a bank of solar panels sitting on the ground nearby.

That’s so cool!

[Credit: ESA/D. O'Donnell, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO]

The antenna, about 140 km north of Perth, was built in 2002 and started service the next year; it’s used to track space missions like Rosetta and Mars Express. The solar panels were installed in August 2017 as an experiment, and it appears to be working. Since they were installed they’ve generated 470 MegaWatt-hours of energy. I have a pretty beefy solar panel array on my house, providing more power than I need in general, but it doesn’t even put out a tenth as much power as the bank at the antenna. That’s impressive.

With battery tech getting better all the time, powering remote stations this way is becoming a viable alternative to using the grid, and I imagine has lots of advantages over it as well. I wonder where else solar panels will help, places that don’t come right to mind?

The thing is, they will come to mind. As this tech gets cheaper and better all the time, places where it seemed weird will become commonplace, and we’ll wonder why we hadn’t been doing this all along.


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Astro Tidbit 2

Yup, a second one.

On January 1, 2019, the New Horizons probe — the one that took such amazing images of Pluto back in 2015 — will pass just a few thousand kilometers from 2014 MU69, a Kuiper Belt Object nicknamed Ultima Thule.

I’d give you all the details, but I don’t have to: My friend Emily Lakdawalla has written an astonishingly thorough article on what to expect during the flyby.

[The icy object 2014 MU69 may be a binary, or even a contact binary, a double-lobed worldlet, as shown in this artist drawing. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Alex Parker]

One thing to be warned about: We won’t get images right away. This is happening 6.6 billion kilometers away, and the bitrate is a tad slow. We may not see the first shots until at least the next day. The probe will take nearly as much data as it did at Pluto, and it’ll be nearly two years before all of it gets back to Earth (it took a year for the Pluto data to be finished downloading).

So the good news here is that patience will be rewarded. Over the next few months we’ll see more and more of this binary or bi-lobed rocky iceball revealed, and in greater detail all the time. Exciting times are ahead!


Blog Jam

What I’ve recently written on the blog, ICYMI

Monday Dec. 17, 2018: Mars InSight: Pix from the ground and from space

Tuesday Dec. 18, 2018: Meet your very, *very* distant solar system neighbor 2018 VG18

Wednesday Dec. 19, 2018: Virgin Galactic makes it to space! Depending on what you mean by 'space'!

Thursday Dec. 20, 2018: Are Saturn's rings dying?

Friday Dec. 21, 2018: Today is the solstice, the shortest day of the year. So why isn’t it the earliest sunset?



Et alia

You can email me at thebadastronomer@gmail.com (though replies can take a while), and all my social media outlets are gathered together at about.me. Also, if you don’t already, please subscribe to this newsletter! And feel free to tell a friend or nine, too. Thanks!