Written by Kelly Herbst, Astronomy Curator for the Virginia Living Museum. Updated every two weeks, more or less.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Time for an Update!

Hello!  As I write this, we astronomy folks here at the VLM are preparing to leave on a big trip to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, WV.  We're taking two busloads of high school students on an overnight trip to learn about radio astronomy, and even get to operate one of the radio dishes!  It should be a blast.  But before we go, I wanted to quickly update you about the latest in astronomical news.

MAVEN has successfully launched!  It went up beautifully on November 18th as planned and is now on its way to Mars.  It should arrive at the Red Planet on September 22, 2014.  Watch for more news about the spacecraft then!
The MAVEN mission patch.  Courtesy Wikipedia.

Speaking of watching things...Comet ISON is starting to get good!  The comet now sits at magnitude 4.0, bright enough to be seen by the unaided eye!  Unfortunately, it also sits very close to the Sun.  So we will still need to wait until it passes by the Sun and swings around for our best view.  Hopefully, the comet will survive its close pass by the Sun and emerge as a brilliant object for us to enjoy throughout December.  Stay tuned for more information!

Comet ISON post-outburst.  The comet is increasing in brightness almost daily as it nears its close approach to the Sun on Thanksgiving Day.  We should be able to see it in our December skies, if it survives.

Finally, keep your eye on the news for the telescopes in Green Bank, WV.  There's a danger that within 5 years, the NSF will eliminate funding for the major instrument there - the Green Bank Telescope.  It's primarily used for active astronomical research, but the facility surrounding the GBT allows students like the high schoolers we're bringing there tomorrow to get experience using real-world scientific research equipment.  Hopefully, the NSF will change its thinking about this amazing facility only 4 hours from Hampton Roads.

The GBT at the NRAO facility in Green Bank, WV.  Open to visitors, its well worth stopping by if you are going to be in the Wild and Wonderful state next door!

Oh!  I almost forgot!  Happy 15th birthday to the International Space Station!  Today marks the 15th anniversary of the first launch involved in constructing the now massive station, currently home to the Expedition 38 crew of 6 astronauts.  I hope they get to have cake today!

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, and I'll see you in two weeks!
Carpe noctem,

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Seeing Red

Look out Mars, here we come (again)!

Yep, we're about to launch another spacecraft to Mars.  It's exciting!  Hopefully, on November 18th, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft will liftoff from Cape Canaveral and begin the 10-month journey to the Red Planet.

An artist's concept of the MAVEN spacecraft at Mars.  Courtesy Wikipedia.

We've learned a great deal about the chilly little world next door over the years.  Rovers aplenty have driven its surface - two of which, Curiosity and Opportunity, are still active.  We've discovered an abundance of evidence that shows that water once flowed freely across the surface of may have formed rivers, lakes, even oceans.

If that is so, the atmosphere of Mars must once have been thicker, for the current thin atmosphere of Mars does not allow water to remain on the surface in liquid form for very long.  Where did this atmosphere go?  What happened to all the water?  On a more global scale - how has the global climate of Mars evolved over the millennia?  And what does that teach us about global climate change here on the Earth?  The MAVEN mission will be headed to Mars to help us answer these questions.

The reddish-orange atmosphere of Mars is visible above the surface in this image from Viking.  Note the Galle "Smiley Face" Crater towards the center-left of the image.  Courtesy Wikipedia.

MAVEN will be an orbiter, remaining above the planet to inspect its atmosphere and how it changes over an extended period of time.  It's four primary mission objectives are:
  • Determine the role that loss of volatiles to space from the Mars atmosphere has played through time.
  • Determine the current state of the upper atmosphere, ionosphere, and interactions with the solar wind.
  • Determine the current rates of escape of neutral gases and ions to space and the processes controlling them.
  • Determine the ratios of stable isotopes in the Martian atmosphere.
This data will help us understand a lot about how Mars has changed over the long history of the solar system.  It's also important data to have as we continue to consider the possibility of sending humans to explore the surface of the Red Planet.

We're going to Mars now because Mars is making its way closer to us.  In April of next year, Mars will once again make a close approach to Earth, meaning that travel time from Earth to Mars is shorter now.  If problems force a delay in launching MAVEN beyond December 7, scientists will have to wait until 2016 before they can try again.  So hopefully, all systems will be go on November 18 for a great launch!  You can watch the launch activities online at NASA-TV.  And before we know it, even more exciting data will be coming our way from the Red Planet!

More from the universe in two weeks!
Until then,
Carpe Noctem!