BREAKING NEWS: Alex Filippenko to give 2012 NEFAF keynote talk!

It’s just been confirmed that Dr. Alex Filippenko will be giving the keynote talk at the 2012 New England Fall Astronomy Festival!!

Dr. Alex Filippenko

Dr. Filippenko, currently the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor in the Physical Sciences at the Astronomy Department at the University of California, Berkeley, is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences and one of the world’s most highly cited astronomers. He is the recipient of numerous prizes for his scientific research, and was a member of both teams that discovered the accelerating expansion of the Universe – the “Top Breakthrough of 1998” according to the editors of Science magazine and winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics. Winner of the most prestigious teaching awards at UC Berkeley and voted the “Best Professor” on campus a record 9 times, he was named a National Professor of the Year in 2006. He has produced 5 astronomy video courses with The Teaching Company, wrote an award-winning astronomy textbook, and appears in numerous television documentaries, including about 40 episodes of The History Channel’s space documentary series, The Universe. In 2004, he was awarded the Carl Sagan Prize for Science Popularization.

Below is the abstract for Dr. Filippenko’s keynote 2012 NEFAF talk, entitled “Dark Energy and the Runaway Universe”, to be given Friday, September 21, 2012 [time TBA].

ABSTRACT:
We expected that the attractive force of gravity would slow down the rate at which the Universe is expanding. But observations of very distant exploding stars show that the expansion rate is actually speeding up, a discovery that was honored with the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics. Over the largest distances, the Universe seems to be dominated by a repulsive “dark energy” – an idea Albert Einstein had suggested in 1917 but renounced in 1929 as his “biggest blunder.” It stretches the fabric of space itself faster and faster with time, creating a “runaway universe.” But the physical origin and nature of dark energy, which makes up about three quarters of the contents of the Universe, is probably the most important unsolved problem in all of physics.

Curiosity first view

Curiosity did not kill the cat…

So as I’m sure you’ve all heard, NASA’s Curiosity rover successfully landed on the surface of Mars in the early hours of yesterday morning (east coast time). In an earlier post, I relayed the video by NASA of the harrowing entry that Curiosity needed to go through to reach the Martian surface safely and highlighted that the entire elaborate landing procedure was 100% automated since it takes double the time the landing would take to occur for information to be relayed back to Earth. And all the taxings of a mission so complicated, despite all the finesse and delicacy needed to execute such a bold attempt, and despite all the things that could go wrong, the scientists and engineers at NASA succeeded. Honestly, if you watch the 7 Minutes of Terror video, realize that scientists built and programmed a machine that could do that all automatically, millions of miles away from Earth (352 million to be exact) while moving at thousands of miles per hour and have it work flawlessly, and aren’t awed and impressed, then well you should probably check your pulse.

The Mars Science Laboratory’s mission is to investigate the interior of the Gale Crater for signs of microbial life. Top left: A profile of Curiosity’s landing site, Gale Crater. Top Right: A simulation of Curiosity’s proposed mission. Bottom: A map showing the distribution of NASA’s missions to the Martian surface. Credit: BBC News

In addition to being the largest rover we’ve ever sent to another world, twice as long (about 10 feet)  and five times as heavy as NASA’s twin Mars Exploration RoversSpirit and Opportunity, launched in 2003, Curiosity also has new equipment that allows it to gather samples of rocks and soil, process them, and then distribute them to various scientific instruments it carries for analysis; that internal instrument suite includes a gas chromatograph, a mass spectrometer, and a tunable laser spectrometer with combined capabilities to identify a wide range of organic (carbon-containing) compounds and determine the ratios of different isotopes of key elements. There’s clearly a reason why the mission is called the Mars Science Laboratory.

This illustration from NASA shows the size and instrumentation of Curiosity that will help it to investigate the possibility of microbial life on Mars. (A) Six independent wheels allowing the rover to travel over the rocky Martian surface. (B) Equipped with 17 cameras, Curiosity will identify particular targets and then zap them with a  laser to probe their chemistry. (C) If the signal is significant, Curiosity will swing over instruments on its arm for close-up investigation. (D) Samples drilled from rock, or scooped from the soil, can be delivered to two hi-tech analysis labs inside the rover body. (E) The results are sent to Earth through antennas on the rover deck. Return commands tell the rover where it should drive next. Credit: BBC News

According to NASA, Curiosity carries with it “the most advanced payload of scientific gear ever used on Mars’ surface, a payload more than 10 times as massive as those of earlier Mars rovers.” All that gear will be important as Curiosity investigates its main science objective: whether or not there is evidence of microbial life (past or present) in Martian rocks. Although both Spirit and Opportunity listed the search for life as among their scientific goals, neither rover was really equipped to search for microbial life; the twin early generation rovers were more specifically looking for water or the evidence of past water on the Martian surface and then whether that water could sustain life. Curiosity, on the other hand, is specifically equipped to look for microbial life (or evidence of it) in the rocks and soil of the Red Planet. More than just the roving explorer that its forebears were, Curiosity is for all intents and purposes a laboratory on wheels.

This image of Curiosity descending to the Martian surface with its parachute was taken by the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The rover is descending toward the etched plains just north of the sand dunes that fringe Aeolis Mons. Credit: NASA

And it’s not just the instrumentation that Curiosity is equipped with that make NASA rover 2.0 better than previous generations, but the technology it used to get to the Martian surface is leaps and bounds ahead of how Spirit and Opportunity landed. If you watch this NASA movie that highlights the landing process for the Mars Exploration Rovers (which only had six minutes of terror), you’ll notice that most of the landing procedure seems similar to Curiosity’s. Extremely high-speed entry into the Martian atmosphere, heat shield, parachute, rocket thrusters, etc. Until you get to the last step, when Spirit and Opportunity wer basically dropped onto the Martian surface at nearly 60 mph, surrounded by huge air bags, and allowed to bounce three or four times until they settled. Compared to the fine precision placement of the Curiosity rover earlier this week, the previous rovers’ landings were downright barbaric, like trying to hunt a deer by throwing rocks.

This image, one of the first returned by Curiosity, shows the rover’s shadow on the Martian surface and one of the main targets of its mission, Aeolis Mons, on the distant horizon. Credit: CNN

Rather than violently smashing the $2.6 billion rover into the surface and hoping for the best, this descent involved a sky crane and the world’s largest supersonic parachute, which allowed the spacecraft carrying Curiosity to target the specific landing area that NASA scientists had meticulously chosen. That landing area is roughly 12 km (7.5 miles) from the foot of the Martian peak previously known as Mount Sharp. Aeolis Mons, as it’s now known, is the 18,000-foot (5,500-meter) peak at the center of Gale Crater, previously known as Mount Sharp. The stratified composition of the mountain could give scientists a layer-by-layer look at the history of the planet as Curiosity attempts its two-year mission to determine whether Mars ever had an environment capable of supporting life.

Possibly the biggest piece of the NASA Curiosity puzzle has been the enormous PR campaign that NASA has thrown behind the rover. Not only has the rover and it’s 7 Minute of Terror video been all over the internet, TV news, newspapers, and other media outlets, but NASA has even gone out of its way to get high-level stars in the fold. Last week they released this video (above) of William Shatner, most famously known as Capt. James Tiberius Kirk of Star Trek, narrating a preview of Curiosity’s “Grand Entrance” to Mars. There was also another video featuring narration by Wil Wheaton (Wesley Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation).

- Cheers,
Ian Cohen
Manager, UNH Observatory

Modified version of original blog post from The Sky’s the Limit.

Venus, the second planet from the Sun, is the hottest place in the solar system. This radar image from the Magellan spacecraft shows the planet’s surface. Credit: JPL/NASA

Venus: Earth’s Evil Twin…

I have to say, I learn something new about space pretty much every day. A couple of weeks ago I was covering a lecture for an introductory level astronomy class here at UNH. The lecture topic was the formation of the solar system with a highlight on the details of the inner terrestrial planets. So, in preparation for the lecture (the night before), I looked through the textbook: The Cosmic Perspective. And while reading in there about Venus, my mind was blown. What exactly blew my mind? That Venus’s fate could easily have been Earth’s.

Venus, the second planet from the Sun, is the hottest place in the solar system. This radar image from the Magellan spacecraft shows the planet’s surface. Credit: JPL/NASA

Venus is almost the same size as Earth (95% in radius and 81.5% in mass) and made up of pretty much the same stuff. The similarity in size and density between Venus and Earth leads scientists to believe that they share a similar internal structure: a core, mantle, and crust. Both have significant volcanic activity, although Earth has active plate tectonics and we don’t see evidence of that on Venus. The big difference between the two planets comes in the stuff above the planet’s surface: the atmosphere. Earth’s atmosphere is made up primarily of nitrogen (78%) and oxygen (21%), with trace amounts  (~1% or less) of argon, carbon dioxide, water vapor, and other things. On Venus it’s an entirely different story. The Venusian atmosphere is almost entirely made up of carbon dioxide (97%), a very efficient greenhouse gas.

Now you’ve probably heard of greenhouse gases and their role in the greenhouse effect which is playing a role in concerns about global warming. A quick review of how the greenhouse effect works: a greenhouse gas, is a gas (most commonly a hydrocarbon) that allows visible light to pass through it but traps heat from infrared radiation. Okay, so who cares? Well the atmosphere is full of small amounts of naturally occurring greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapor) which allow the visible light from the Sun to pass through our atmosphere and reach the surface. That’s awesome, because if those gases were opaque to visible light– meaning they did not allow them to pass through– then all the plants on Earth would die and we’d all be sickly pale. It’s this next part that makes greenhouse gases significant. The Earth is warm, astronomically speaking compared to the cold vacuum of space, and emits its own radiation (or light) in the infrared. Back in the mid-19th century, scientists realized that anything that’s warm emits radiation– called blackbody radiation– most of it at wavelengths that we can’t see. The relation between the spectrum of light that an object radiates and its temperature is governed by Planck’s Law. A practical example are night-vision goggles which pick up on the thermal infrared radiation that’s given off by the warmth of a human’s body. Our Sun (10,340º F) is much, much hotter than Earth (~40º F) or a human (~98º F), so it emits a blackbody spectrum which peaks in the visible, whereas humans and the Earth emit mostly in the infrared. It’s the shifting of this peak which gives stars their different colors.

So Earth (and Venus because of its similar size) radiates most of its light in the infrared, which greenhouse gases do not allow to pass through the atmosphere. So instead of that newly radiated heat (IR light) being transmitted out through the atmosphere and into space, it gets trapped and increases the temperature for us on the surface. Now, normally for us on Earth that’s fine because our planet does a great job of regulating the surface temperature through a process known as the carbon dioxide (CO2) cycle. The CO2 cycle helps Earth to self-regulate its temperature. If it’s too hot, the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere dissolves in the water in the ocean, then settles and is stored in rocks of the ocean floor. If it’s too cold, then the carbon dioxide which returns to the interior of the planet (via subduction caused by plate tectonics) is released back into the atmosphere by volcanoes. So Earth can do a really good job at keeping track of its own thermostat, which has helped Earth maintain a stable surface temperature even though the temperature of the Sun has changed significantly over time. The problem with the greenhouse effect on Earth is that if we add too many new greenhouse gases (specifically carbon dioxide) that Earth can’t/isn’t ready to handle, then we can mess up the delicate balance that Earth is working so hard to maintain for us.

So what, Venus has more carbon dioxide in its atmosphere, why does that matter to Earth? Well, because it could very easily have happened to us. The only reason that Venus is a horrible, deadly world, the hottest in the solar system, with temperatures over 700º F is because it’s closer to the Sun than Earth is. The average distance of Venus’s from the Sun (called the semi-major axis) is ~72% of that of Earth’s; that means it’s roughly 66,928,200 miles away from the Sun (that’s a mere 26,027,600 miles– or 109 times the distance to the Moon– closer than Earth is). Astronomically speaking, that’s a very small distance. If primordial Earth’s orbit was altered enough to move it that roughly 26 million miles closer to the Sun– by, say an asteroid impact similar to the one that we believe created the Moon– then Earth could have ended up the same as Venus. If Earth were to move that mere 30% closer to the Sun, then the liquid water oceans which we have on Earth that dissolve the excess carbon dioxide, removing it from our atmosphere, would have evaporated. Water vapor is actually one of the best greenhouse gases, so the evaporation of the water vapor into the air combined with the failure to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, would result in a runaway heating effect that the planet would have no way to stop.

So it’s by a very small distance, a distance that’s only 30 times larger than the diameter of the Sun, that Earth escaped being a hellish, fiery deathtrap and became the one oasis of life that we know of in the universe.

- Cheers,
Ian Cohen
Manager, UNH Observatory

Modified version of original blog post from The Sky’s the Limit.

This image taken by the Cassini spacecraft shows the intricate detail in which the rings of Saturn are situated. The brightest section in the image is Saturn’s B ring. Credit: NASA

A spotlight on Saturn’s rings

Saturn is without a doubt my favorite object to look at in the night time sky. The first time I viewed it through my first telescope I was instantly mesmerized by the rings. It’s really a celestial treasure right in our own backyard. If you’ve never looked at Saturn through a telescope, do it. I promise, you won’t regret it. Now you might be wondering, what will Saturn look like through a telescope? Well you won’t see this:

This natural color image of Saturn was created from a series of images that were taken by the Cassini spacecraft during its encounter with the planet in October 2004. Credit: NASA

…but you probably will be able to see something like this:

Here’s a glimpse of Saturn taken through the UNH Observatory‘s C14 by UNH Observatory volunteer and SkyGuy John S. Gianforte on February 21, 2007.

So you see why it’s something that sticks with you. So yes, you should definitely look at Saturn through a telescope. Now let’s learn a little bit more about the 2nd largest planet in our solar system!

Of the five planets visible to the naked eye from Earth, Saturn is the furthest and slowest moving across the sky. That’s actually how Saturn got its name; the ancient Greeks named the planet after Chronos (Saturn to the Romans), the father of Zeus (Jupiter) and the God of time (a reason why chronos is a root of time-related words, like chronology). Galileo was the first to resolve and discover the rings of Saturn when he looked at it through his telescope in 1610. It’s incorrect status as the only ringed planet in the solar system survived until well into the latter half of the 20th century. In 1977, Saturn was joined in the ringed planet club by Uranus, after scientists observed a star passing behind the planet, a phenomenon called an occultation. Most unexpectedly, the star’s light blinked on and off nine times before disappearing behind the disc of the planet; this proved that although the rings were too dim to be seen from Earth, the material was present. Only a few years later, Voyager 1 discovered the rings of Jupiter and it wasn’t until the mid-1980’s that another stellar occultation proved the existence of Neptune’s ring system. So it’s true, all of the gaseous outer planets, or “gas giants”, have rings, but Saturn’s are by far the most visually impressive and the only ones visible from Earth. So that leads us to a very interesting and mysterious question…why? What makes Saturn’s rings special?

As telescopes on Earth have become more and more advanced and we continue our extensive exploration of the solar system, we have pieced together a much more comprehensive understanding of Saturn’s rings than Galileo had 400 years ago. Although the rings look solid and sheet-like from Earth, we now know that the rings of Saturn are actually comprised of billions of particles of rock, ice, and dust ranging in size from microscopic to meters-wide. The brighter, more dense regions of the rings have more material to reflect light while the dark regions or “gaps” are much more scarcely populated. The debris that makes up the planet’s rings are in a very well-defined plane, only a few tens of meters thick, but extending almost 130,000 km (80,778 mi) above the planet’s surface. The gallery below shows the evolution of our understanding and imaging of Saturn’s rings.

But many questions still remain about why Saturn’s rings are so much brighter than the other gassy planets. The answer scientists think, lies with the sixth-largest of Saturns 60+ moons: a small, icy world called Enceladus(shown below).

Saturn’s 6th largest moon, Enceladus, as imaged by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. The blue fissures in the surface seen in the southern hemisphere are known as tiger stripes. Credit: NASA

Enceladus is roughly 500 km in diameter (14% of the Moon) and 1.1 × 10²º kg in mass (0.2% of the Moon), but what it lacks in stature it makes up for in output. Literally. Discovered by William Herschel in 1879 (only 2 years before his discovery of the planet Uranus), Enceladus first came into the spotlight for scientists in early 1980. As John Spencer recalls in a recent article in Physics Today, that was

“…when scientists using Earth-based telescopes acquired new images of a faint outer ring of Saturn—the E ring—which had been discovered in the 1960’s. Those images revealed that the E ring’s brightness peaked at the orbit of Enceladus. They also showed that unlike Saturn’s other rings, the E ring scattered sunlight more efficiently at shorter wavelengths, which indicated that the ring was dominated by particles not much larger than the wavelength of light. Sputtering by charged particles in Saturn’s magnetosphere would erode away such micron-sized particles on time scales of decades to hundreds of years, so something had to be replenishing the ring on comparable time scales. The peak in ring density at Enceladus pointed to that moon as the likely source.”

Since then interest in the small ice-world increased exponentially and as a result Enceladus became a primary target of investigation for the joint NASA/ESA mission of the Cassini spacecraft. After only slightly whetting their appetite with two flybys of the small moon in early 2005, researchers decided to make a third flyby at a much closer range, 170 km (105 mi) instead of the planned 1000 km (621 mi). The dramatic results from this third Enceladus flyby in July 2005 were released in a special March 2006 issue of the journal Science. It was this flyby that got the high-resolution images seen above and first discovered the “four prominent parallel fractures, dubbed tiger stripes, surrounded by an intensely tectonically disrupted landscape” that the image depicts. In an even more interesting find, Cassini caught evidence of multiple plume jets erupting from the four tiger stripe fractures seen near Enceladus’s south pole.

Multiple plume jets erupting from the four tiger-stripe fractures near Enceladus’s south pole are visible in this Cassini image. The jets appear not only on the edge of Enceladus’s disk but also where they rise up into sunlight from sources on the night side of the moon. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI; Mosaic: Emily Lakdawalla

These plumes (shown above), currently ejecting mass at an astounding 200 kg/s, have two observable components: micron-sized ice grains and gas (99% water vapor). It is speculated that the water vapor and ice crystals that are being deposited into Saturn’s ring system by Enceladus are what have kept the planet’s rings so bright and reflective for so long.

In spite of all of this other extremely intriguing science, the most interesting thing for scientists is Enceladus’ potential for life. As one of the few places in the solar system where we know water exists, Enceladus has become a key target in the search for extraterrestrial life. Scientists speculate that liquid water might occur in several places on the tiny moon: as a global ocean between the silicate core and the ice crust, as a more local south polar sea beneath the ice shell), or as localized bodies of water in the ice shell itself.

Here is Saturn’s tiny icy moon Enceladus, imaged by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Just above the smaller moon we can see the planet’s rings and Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, looming in the background. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

So there you have it, Enceladus is our celestial ring-bearer, if you will. Hope you learned something! Until next time, friends!

- Cheers,
Ian Cohen
Manager, UNH Observatory

References:

Modified version of original blog post from The Sky’s the Limit.

This is what NEFAF is all about! A young astronomer-to-be looks at the Sun through a solar telescope. Credit: Loni Anderson

A Brief History of NEFAF

Welcome to the official blog of the New England Fall Astronomy Festival or NEFAF! In the future this blog will be the place to find updates and insider info about NEFAF as well as fun and insightful educational astronomy tidbits. But I figured since this is the first post, I’d give you a little background on NEFAF.

NEFAF started as an idea between two huge astronomy-lovers- John Gianforte and Tom Cocchiaro- who dreamed of an event where they could spread their love and excitement about space to children and families all over New England. Luckily, John, an accomplished local astronomer,  is extremely involved with the UNH Physics Department, where he teaches astronomy courses in the summer, and has been involved as a volunteer with the UNH Observatory since it was founded in the mid-1980s. So in the winter of 2011 John approached the powers that be within the UNH Physics Department about hosting such an event. Meanwhile, Tom, an active member of the New Hampshire Astronomical Society (NHAS), approached that organization about participating in the event as well. Both the UNH Physics Department and NHAS were extremely excited about the idea and wanted to get involved, but both agreed that what the was still missing was a suitable location to host the event. It was immediately decided that the UNH Observatory was the ideal locale and a the dates were selected: Friday, October 14 and Saturday, October 15, 2012. And then the ball really got rolling!

Next, the organizers, a rag-tag group consisting of UNH employees, students, Observatory volunteers, NHAS members, and friends began to raise funds and work with UNH departments to coordinated logistics for the event. Joining the UNH Physics Department, contributions came in from the UNH Office of the President, the UNH Office of the Provost, the UNH Alumni Association, the UNH Parents Association, the New Hampshire Space Grant Consortium, and the New Hampshire High Technology Council. On top of all the monetary support, Tom was able to solicit the donation of over $2000 in telescopes and equipment from Oceanside Photo and Telescope and Orion Telescopes and Binoculars. In addition to that, we received raffle donations of UNH windbreakers from the UNH Alumni Association, a signed Jonathan Papelbon baseball from the Boston Red Sox, and a certificate for free dog training from the NH SPCA! UNH food staple RRRamon’s Food and Coffee Cart also got involved, offering to be our food sponsor!

But the event still didn’t have a name! After several meetings and dozens of emails throwing words and acronyms around, the organizers finally settled on “New England Fall Astronomy Festival”. We liked making the geographic region large, to encompass all of New England and we wanted to highlight the autumnal feel of the festival. I think the Astronomy part is pretty obvious and “festival”, well that just plain sounds fun! So we had our name. Next we met with UNH’s Editorial & Creative services team who helped us develop a poster for the event.

The poster for the first-ever New England Fall Astronomy Festival, created for us by UNH Editorial & Creative Services

While we were working on the logistics and fundraising, we also had to try to put together a program of activities, talks, and demonstrations for the festival. We were lucky enough to secure NASA astronaut and UNH alumnus Lee Morin to give our keynote talk and invited well-known solar photographer Alan Friedman to speak as well. Joining them were former UNH Observatory Manager Matt Giguere, former NASA researcher Dr. Suzanne Young, Brother Albert Heinrich, Profs. Jim Ryan and Mark McConnell of the UNH Physics Department, and several NHAS members. We also amassed a group of volunteers, led by John’s wife Doris and daughter Becky, to coordinate hands-on astronomy activities for children and their parents. We also got a whole lot of other participants to join in the fun. Before we knew it we had science organizations from all over the state manning tables next to NHAS. ARLISS Team New Hampshire, the Earth, Sea & Space Center, the International Occultation Timing Association (IOTA), the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center, the Oyster River High School FIRST Robotics Team, and Project SMART were all represented.

Before we knew it, October was on us and there were just a few short days left before the big event. Ignoring a few small logistical hiccups everything was going swimmingly until the Friday of the event, then the skies opened up. It rained almost all day Friday, soaking the fields around the Observatory where the event was scheduled to be held. But we didn’t let that deter us! Despite a relatively small turnout Friday night, we remained optimistic for Saturday, the main day of the festival. The organizers and volunteers arrived early Saturday morning to prepare and to assess the rain situation. The ground was still very wet, but otherwise it turned out to be a crisp, clear New England fall day! Much to our excitement, over 500 people from around the Seacoast and beyond showed up to enjoy the event. Guests filled the day with solar observing, talks, and kids activities. Many a happy child could be found with planets painted on their cheeks and a hand-made mini-model of the Hubble Space Telescope clutched in a hand as they peered through one of a dozen-plus scopes set up around the UNH Observatory dome. After his talk, Lee Morin signed well over 200 autographs and took countless pictures with grateful children and their parents. As the day wore on, some children faltered, but the overall excitement and enthusiasm surrounding the day sure did not. As the sun dropped and night fell, nearly 300 people came out to join UNH Observatory staff and NHAS members for several hours of stargazing.

All in all the event was a huge success and the organizers immediately decided to try to make the New England Fall Astronomy Festival an annual event! So here we are, preparing for the second-annual NEFAF, scheduled (in conjunction with International Observe the Moon Night) for Friday, September 21 and Saturday, September 22, 2012. We hope to see you there! Please be sure to follow this blog and “Like” our Facebook page for the most up-to-date information about the event. And of course visit our website as well!

- Cheers,
Ian Cohen
Manager, UNH Observatory