We’re in uncharted territory as the world faces the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. While the medical community is on the front lines of dealing with this, as well as others who provide critical services in our communities, the best thing many of us can do is to stay home (and wash our hands).
If you’re looking for ways to keep occupied, keep your kids in learning-mode while school is canceled, and expand your horizons — all at the same time — luckily there are lots of space and astronomy-related activities you can do at home and online. We’ve compiled a few of our favorites, including this first one, one that just became available yesterday.
It looks like a poster of the famous Hubble Deep Field, marked with white streaks by a child, or put away carelessly and scratched in the process. But it’s not. The white streaks aren’t accidents; they’re the paths of asteroids.
Jupiter: a massive, lifeless gas giant out there on the other side of the asteroid belt. It’s a behemoth, containing 2.5 times as much mass as all the other planets combined. To top it off, it’s named after the Roman God of War.
Earth: a tiny rocky world, almost too close to the Sun, where life rises and falls, punctuated repeatedly by extinctions. Compared to Jupiter, it’s a gum-drop world: Jupiter is 317.8 times the mass of Earth. And Earth is named after a goddess in German paganism, or so we think.
“Out of all the complexity flows beauty…”
Norman Kuring, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
Calling all citizen scientists, geography buffs, fans of the International Space Station and those who love that orbital perspective!
CosmoQuest has a brand new project in coordination with NASA and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP) where you can help identify features in photographs taken by astronauts from the space station.
The project is called Image Detective. I’ve tried it out, and wow, THIS is a lot of fun!
Now, I absolutely love seeing the images taken of Earth from the ISS, and I routinely follow all the astronauts on board on social media so I can see their latest images. And I also love the concept of regular, everyday people doing science. Plus I’m a big fan of CosmoQuest and their ‘quest’ to bring science to the public.
But still, the setup CosmoQuest has is really great and the process is easy. Citizen scientists are asked to help identify geographic features (natural or human-made) and then determine the location on Earth where the photo is centered.
I found that last part to be the most difficult, but I’ve been known to have trouble reading a map … so I’m hoping that I can improve a bit with more practice.
“The astronauts’ photos of Earth are visually stunning, but more than that, they can be used to study our changing Earth,” said our good friend Dr. Pamela Gay, who is the Director of Technology and Citizen Science at ASP. “From erupting volcanoes, to seasonal flooding, these images document the gradual changes that happen to our landscape. The trick is, we need to make these images searchable, and that means taking the time to sort through, analyze, and label (add metadata) the unidentified images within the database of 1.5 million plus photos.”
The team says that Image Detective spreads the significant work necessary to label all of the images out to citizen scientists across the world.
“This is a unique, powerful, and beautiful image data set that has already yielded excellent research science. But the data set needs the many eyes and minds of citizen scientists to reach its full potential as a publicly available, searchable catalog,” said Dr. Jennifer Grier, a Senior Scientist and Senior Education and Communication Specialist at Planetary Science Institute (PSI) and CosmoQuest’s lead support scientist. “With the additions that citizen scientists as detectives can make, professional research scientists will be able to conduct more research into our changing world, and do so much more effectively.”
The original plans for the Juno mission to Jupiter didn’t include a color camera. You don’t need color images when the mission’s main goals are to map Jupiter’s magnetic and gravity fields, determine the planet’s internal composition, and explore the magnetosphere.
But a camera was added to the manifest, and the incredible images from the JunoCam have been grabbing the spotlight.
As an instrument where students and the public can choose the targets, JunoCam is a “public outreach” camera, meant to educate and captivate everyday people.
“The whole endeavor of JunoCam was to get the public to participate in a meaningful way,” said Candy Hansen, Juno co-investigator at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, speaking at a press conference last week to showcase Juno’s science and images.
And participate they have. Hundreds of ‘amateur’ image processing enthusiasts have been processing raw data from the JunoCam, turning them into stunning images, many reminiscent of a swirling Van Gogh ‘starry night’ or a cloudscape by Monet.
“The contributions of the amateurs are essential,” Hansen said. “I cannot overstate how important the contributions are. We don’t have a way to plan our data without the contributions of the amateur astronomers. We don’t have a big image processing team, so we are completely relying on the help of our citizen scientists.”
Click on this image to have access to a 125 Megapixel upscaled print portrait.
“What I find the most phenomenal of all is that this takes real work,” Hansen said. “When you download a JunoCam image and process it, it’s not something you do in five minutes. The pictures that we get that people upload back onto our site, they’ve invested hours and hours of their own time, and then generously returned that to us.”
This video shows Juno’s trajectory from Perijove 6, and is based on work by Gerald Eichstädt, compiled and edited by Seán Doran. “This is real imagery projected along orbit trajectory,” Doran explained on Twitter.
JunoCam was built by Malin Space Science Systems, which has cameras on previous missions like the Curiosity Mars Rover, the Mars Global Surveyor and the Mars Color Imager on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. To withstand the harsh radiation environment at Jupiter, the camera required special protection and a reinforced lens.
Whenever new images arrive, many of us feel exactly like editing enthusiast Björn Jónsson:
Even the science team has expressed their amazement at these images.
“Jupiter looks different than what we expected,” said Scott Bolton, Juno’s principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute. “Jupiter from the poles doesn’t look anything like it does from the equator. And the fact the north and south pole don’t look like each other, makes us wonder if the storms are stable, if they going to stay that way for years and years like the the Great Red Spot. Only time will tell us what is true.”
Juno engineers designed the mission to enable the use of solar panels, which prior to Juno, have never been used on a spacecraft going so far from the Sun. Juno orbits Jupiter in a way that the solar panels are always pointed towards the Sun and the spacecraft never goes behind the planet. Juno’s orbital design not only enabled an historic solar-powered mission, it also established Juno’s unique science orbit.
Juno spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral on August 5, 2011. After traveling five years and 1.7 billion miles Juno arrived in orbit at Jupiter on July 4, 2016. The mission will last until at least February 2018, making 11 science orbits around Jupiter, instead of the 32 laps originally planned. Last year, engineers detected a problem with check valves in the propulsion system, and NASA decided to forego an engine burn to move Juno into a tighter 14-day orbit around Jupiter. The current 53.4 day orbit will be maintained, but depending on how the spacecraft responds, NASA could extend the mission another three years to give Juno more flybys near Jupiter.
The next science flyby will occur on July 11, when Juno will get some close-up views of the famous Great Red Spot.
This remarkable image was captured last fall by Dave Markel, a photographer based in Kamloops, British Columbia. Later, aurora researcher Eric Donovan of the University of Calgary, discovered Markel’s strange ribbon of light while looking through photos of the northern lights on social media. Knowing he’d found something unusual, Donovan worked sifted through data from the European Space Agency’s Swarm magnetic field mission to try and understand the nature of the phenomenon.
Launched on 22 November 2013, three identical Swarm satellites orbit the Earth measuring the magnetic fields that stem from Earth’s core, mantle, crust and oceans, as well as from the ionosphere and magnetosphere. Speaking at the recent Swarm science meeting in Canada, Donovan explained how this new finding couldn’t have happened 20 years ago when he started to study the aurora.
While the shimmering, eerie, light display of auroras might be beautiful and captivating, they’re also a visual reminder that Earth is connected electrically and magnetically to the Sun. The more we know about the aurora, the greater our understanding of that connection and how it affects everything from satellites to power grids to electrically-induced corrosion of oil pipelines.
“In 1997 we had just one all-sky imager in North America to observe the aurora borealis from the ground,” said Prof. Donovan. “Back then we would be lucky if we got one photograph a night of the aurora taken from the ground that coincides with an observation from a satellite. Now we have many more all-sky imagers and satellite missions like Swarm so we get more than 100 a night.”
And that’s where sharing photos and observations on social media can play an important role. Sites like the Great Lakes Aurora Hunters and Aurorasaurus serve as clearinghouses for observers to report auroral displays. Aurorasaurus connects citizen scientists to scientists and searches Twitter feeds for instances of the word ‘aurora,’ so skywatchers and scientists alike know the real-time extent of the auroral oval.
At a recent talk, Prof. Donovan met members the popular Facebook group Alberta Aurora Chasers. Looking at their photos, he came across the purple streak Markel and others had photographed which they’d been referring to as a “proton arc.” But such a feature, caused by hydrogen emission in the upper atmosphere, is too faint to be seen with the naked eye. Donovan knew it was something else, but what?Someone suggested “Steve.” Hey, why not?
While the group kept watch for the Steve’s return, Donovan and colleagues looked through data from the Swarm mission and his network of all-sky cameras. Before long he was able to match a ground sighting of streak to an overpass of one of the three Swarm satellites.
“As the satellite flew straight though Steve, data from the electric field instrument showed very clear changes,” said Donovan.
“The temperature 186 miles (300 km) above Earth’s surface jumped by 3000°C and the data revealed a 15.5-mile-wide (25 km) ribbon of gas flowing westwards at about 6 km/second compared to a speed of about 10 meters/second either side of the ribbon. A friend of mine compared it to a fluorescent light without the glass.
It turns out that these high-speed “rivers” of glowing auroral gas are much more common than we’d thought, and that in no small measure because of the efforts of an army of skywatchers and aurora photographers who keep watch for that telltale green glow in the northern sky.
I spoke to Steve’s keeper, Dave Markel, via e-mail yesterday and he described what the arc looked like to his eyes:
“It’s similar to the image just not as intense. It looks like a massive contrail moving rapidly across the sky. This one lasted almost an hour and ran in an arc almost perfectly east to west. I was directly below it but often there are green pickets (parallel streaks of aurora) rising above the streak.”
I know whereof Dave speaks because thanks to his photo and Prof. Donovan’s research, I realize I’ve seen and photographed Steve, too! In decades of aurora watching I’ve only seen this rare streak a handful of times. On most of those occasions, there was either no other aurora visible or minor activity in the northern sky. The narrow arc, which lasted for an hour or so, pulsed and flowed with light and occasionally, Markel’s “pickets” were visible. Back in May 1990 I had a camera on hand to get a picture.
Goes to show, you never know what you might see when you poke your head out for a look. Keep a lookout when aurora’s expected and maybe you’ll get to meet Steve, too.
Ready for the “Great American Eclipse?” We’re now less than six months out from the long-anticipated total solar eclipse spanning the contiguous United States from coast-to-coast. And while folks are scrambling to make last minute plans to stand in the path of totality on Monday, August 21st 2017, a unique project named the Eclipse Megamovie 2017 seeks seeks to document the view across the entire path.
The Project: Sponsored by Google’s Making & Science Initiative and led by Scott McIntosh from the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s High Altitude Observatory and Hugh Hudson from the University of California at Berkeley, the Eclipse Megamovie Project seeks to recruit 1,500 observers stationed across the eclipse path from Oregon to South Carolina. Although individual observers will only experience a maximum totality length of 2 minutes and 40 seconds, the complete span of the Eclipse Megamovie will last 90 minutes, compiled using observer images from coast-to-coast.
“The movie is a tool for scientific exploration,” Hudson said in a recent University of California at Berkeley press release. “We’ll be collecting this level of data for the first time, from millions of observers, and it will be a valuable archive. But we don’t know what we’ll see or what we’ll learn about the interactions between the chromosphere and the corona.”
One portion of the project will have trained volunteers image the Sun from along the eclipse path using DSLRs, while another portion of the project will feature smartphone users imaging totality using a forthcoming Eclipse Megamovie app for a full length lower resolution movie.
Bikers and Baily’s Beads
The only total solar eclipse for 2017, totality for this eclipse occurs along a 114 kilometer-wide path touching on 12 states. Millions live within an easy day drive of the eclipse path, so expect lots of general public interest leading up to eclipse day. August is RV and camping season, so expect camplots to fill up quickly as well. The eclipse also occurs just over a week after the annual Biker’s Rally in Sturgis, South Dakota, affording motorcyclists a chance to stand in the shadow of the Moon en route to the annual pilgrimage.
The last total solar eclipse to cross one of the 50 United States graced Hawaii on July 11th, 1991, and the last time the umbra of the Moon touched down over the lower 48 states was on February 26th, 1979 across the United States northwest. But you have to go all the way back over almost a century ago to June 8th, 1918 to find an eclipse featuring totality which exclusively spanned the United States from sea to shining sea.
Observers have chased after the umbra seeking to extend fleeting totality before. Eclipse chasers documented the January 24th, 1925 eclipse from aloft aboard a dirigible over New York City. On June 30th, 1973, a supersonic Concorde flight chased the umbra of the Moon across northern Africa, extending totality out to 74 minutes.
The team was also on hand to perform a dry run test of the Megamovie Project at this past weekend’s annular eclipse which crossed South America, the Southern Atlantic and Africa and reports that the field test of the promised project app by Mark Bender worked admirably, and the Eclipse Megamovie App should be available to the general public soon.
What sort of science can such a project offer? What is left to learn from a total solar eclipse after centuries of scientific study? Well, some of the most accurate measurements of the solar diameter and the size and shape of the Sun have been made during solar eclipses. A long movie may also reveal streamers and development of the solar corona, the ethereal pearly white glowing outer atmosphere surrounding the Sun. About half as bright as a Full Moon, we only get a brief glimpse of the corona during totality. Also, the Eclipse Megamovie will get another shot at the project in April 2024, when another eclipse crosses the United States from Texas to Maine.
The Eclipse Megamovie is taking volunteers now. The gear setup required is simple, and you might have what’s needed to image the eclipse laying around already.
You’ll need a DSLR camera with a sturdy tripod, a zoom or fixed lens of 300mm focal length or better, and an ability to nail down your GPS location and the time to the nearest second. Once the volunteers are selected, training will be provided to include GPS and time stamping images, flat-fielding and more.
Phone apps will readily supply the GPS part. For time, I’d go with with WWV Radio, which broadcasts a continuous audio time hack out of Fort Collins, Colorado. This is in Universal Time, and has an accuracy of better than a second better than online time sources, which occasionally lag due to spurious web connections.
Keep in mind, you’ll be photographing the eclipsed Sun during very brief moments of totality. You’ll need to have approved solar glasses and filters in place during all partial phases leading up to and immediately after the eclipse. The Eclipse Megamovie project also hopes to catch sight of the Bailey’s Beads phenomenon as final streamers of sunlight pour through the lunar valleys, giving the illusion known as the Diamond Ring effect.
And us? We’ll be casting our hubris at the Universe and catch the eclipse from Columbia, South Carolina. We’re heeding the advice of veteran eclipse chasers, and simply enjoying our first eclipse, and imaging our second, though we may sneak in a few shots for the Eclipse Megamovie project. Universe Today publisher Fraser Cain and astronomer and AstronomyCast host Pamela Gay will lead a group watching from southern Illinois, and we’ve also heard from many other observers from around the world who’ll be visiting the U.S. the August… where will you be?
And we’ve already got a spot picked out for 2024, as the next total solar eclipse crosses Aroostook County and our hometown of Mapleton, Maine… hey, you can never start planning too early, right?
Get set for an eclipse for the ages, and be sure to contribute to the Eclipse Megamovie Project.
It turns out, that famous question of “How do you go to the bathroom in space?” is not so easy to answer. At least, not when it comes to ‘going’ — repeatedly — in your spacesuit, when you may have been wearing it continually for six days or more.
“The problem is a little bit unknown, since the scenario of needing to take care of human waste in a spacesuit longer than a couple of hours is a newer issue that pertains to preparations for deep space exploration,” said Paul Musille, who is the Project Manager for the HeroX-NASA Space Poop Challenge.
This challenge is one of the latest projects from the NASA Tournament Lab, a program that asks members of the public to help come up with “novel ideas or solutions” for space-related problems. It’s hosted by the crowd-sourcing platform HeroX. (Disclosure, Universe Today Publisher Fraser Cain used to work for HeroX.)
You may have thought that whole ‘going to the bathroom in space’ issue had already been resolved -– in NASA style, complete with acronyms. On board the International Space Station (ISS) there’s the Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS), a life support system that among other things, helps with waste management and water supply (yes, urine is recycled into water). The zero gravity toilet on the ISS is a fan driven fan-driven suction system called the Waste and Hygiene Compartment (WHC). Then there are the MAGs (Maximum Absorbency Garment) – basically adult diapers – worn during 7-8 hour-long spacewalks.
But what happens during long duration missions or even an emergency (think Mark Watney) where astronauts might need to spend several days in a spacesuit?
“It is pretty clear that the MAG solution will not be a safe option for longer duration use,” Musille told Universe Today, “and that the system used on the ISS is also not appropriately sized for application inside a suit.”
The Space Poop Challenge is looking to create an “in-suit waste management system” that can handle six days’ worth of bathroom needs.
“What’s needed is a system inside a space suit that collects human waste for up to 144 hours and routes it away from the body, without the use of hands,” HeroX says on the Space Poop Challenge site. “The system has to operate in the conditions of space – where solids, fluids, and gases float around in microgravity (what most of us think of as “zero gravity”) and don’t necessarily mix or act the way they would on earth. This system will help keep astronauts alive and healthy over 6 days, or 144 hrs.”
NASA’s Rick Mastracchio explains the problems in this video:
Since astronauts might have unique perspective as far as input for ideas, Musille said that as part of the joint project design process with NASA, his team conferred with astronauts and other technical experts at the space agency.
But NASA thinks the public could offer good ideas, too. Of all the ideas submitted through the HeroX challenge, up to three will be chosen as possible solutions, with up to $30,000 total in prize money.
What might be the biggest obstacle to overcome?
“I think the biggest hurdle might be the limited space inside the MACES (Modified Advanced Crew Escape Suit, the spacesuit being developed for use on the Orion spacecraft),” Musille said via email. “This directly prevents adaptation of other toilet systems made for space, like the one used on the ISS.”
Got any ideas for solving this messy challenge? The deadline for this challenge is Dec. 20, and HeroX says this has been one of their most popular challenges, breaking records in the number submissions, the number of different countries represented, registrations, and page views per day.
Obviously, you’ve seen timelapse videos of the night sky because we share them here on Universe Today all the time. But you’ve probably not seen a video like this one before. This one isn’t a timelapse, and you’ll see the night sky in all its splendor, in real time.
“I think this one may be the beginning of something damn interesting,” said filmmaker Ben Canales, who along with cohort John Waller of Uncage The Soul Productions, shot this video with new low-light technology. Using the new Canon MH20f-SH, which has the capability of shooting at 400,000 ISO, they were able to “film in the quiet moments that have been impossible to capture until now.”
“Since 2013, I’ve been tinkering with all sorts of camera/lens/software combinations trying to move beyond a long exposure still to real time video of the stars,” Canales said on Facebook. “Sooner or later, we have to move beyond a frozen photo of the stars to hear, see, feel what it is really like being out there!”
In addition to showcasing this wonderful new low-light shooting, Infinity² really captures the emotional side of amateur astronomy and the beauty of being under the night sky. He took a group of high school students out to witness the Perseid Meteor Shower in Oregon, and the students got together with the Oregon Star Party. Together, they answer the simple question “What do you feel?”
As Canales says, “Something internal and personal draws us out to the night sky.”
Being able to witness a solar eclipse is certainly a distinct experience. Even though the spectacle is mostly visual, there can be other effects as well. The air can cool, and observers may notice a decrease in wind speed or a change in wind direction. There might even be an eerie silence.
Experiences like this have been noted for centuries, and famed astronomer Edmund Halley wrote of the ‘Chill and Damp which attended the Darkness’ during an eclipse in 1715, which he noted caused ‘some sense of Horror’ among those who were witnessing the event.
While most people would describe an eclipse as ‘awe-inspiring’ (and not horrifying at all) the atmospheric changes noted by observers over the years has been called the “eclipse wind.” And now, based on the observations of over 4,500 citizen scientists in the UK during the partial eclipse on March 20, 2015, this effect is not just a figment of anyone’s imagination; it is a real phenomenon.
The National Eclipse Weather Experiment (NEWEx) was a UK-wide citizen science project for collecting atmospheric data during that eclipse. Members of the public – including about 200 schools – recorded weather changes such as air temperature, wind speed, wind direction and cloud cover every five minutes during the eclipse. That data, submitted online, was compared with official data from the UK’s Met office observations, the United Kingdom’s national weather service.
“The NEWEx was, as far as we know, a world first, in measuring and analyzing eclipse changes in the weather on a national scale, in close to real time, through engagement of a network of citizen scientists,” wrote researchers Luke Barnard, Giles Harrison, Suzanne Gray and Antonio Portas from the University of Reading, in one of a series of new papers about eclipse meteorology published this week.
The data revealed that not only did the atmosphere cool during the eclipse – which is not surprising since solar radiation is being blocked by the Moon – but the winds and cloud cover also decreased. The cumulative effect is real, not just anecdotal, the team said.
NEWEx collected 15,606 meteorological observations from 309 locations within the UK and from those observations the science team was able to derive estimates of the near-surface air temperature, cloudiness and near-surface wind speed fields across many UK sites. The data submitted by citizen scientists were combined with Met Office surface weather stations and a network of roadside weather sensors that monitor highway conditions. The combination of data helped unravel the centuries-old mystery of the eclipse wind.
From analysis of the data, they found that the wind change is caused by variations to the “boundary layer” – the area of air that usually separates high-level winds from those at the ground.
“There have been lots of theories about the eclipse wind over the years, but we think this is the most compelling explanation yet,” said Harrison in a press release from the University of Reading in the UK. “As the sun disappears behind the moon the ground suddenly cools, just like at sunset. This means warm air stops rising from the ground, causing a drop in wind speed and a shift in its direction, as the slowing of the air by the Earth’s surface changes.”
The measurements from citizen scientists clearly showed temperature drops and a decrease in clouds. The team did note that because of the low velocity of winds and some areas where cloud cover change was small, it was difficult for the participants to make some of the measurements. But the high level of participation across the UK provided enough data for the team to make their conclusions.
“Halley also relied on combining eclipse observations from amateur investigators across Britain. We have continued his approach,” Harrison said.
A total of 16 new papers and reports were published this week in a special ‘eclipse meteorology’ issue of the world’s oldest scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A. The special issue is published 301 years after Halley’s report of the eclipse in London in 1715 – and in exactly the same journal.
The team wrote that they hope a similar citizen science effort might take place in August 2017, when a total solar eclipse will be visible from North America, providing another opportunity to study eclipse-induced meteorology changes.
“NEWEx serves as a useful example of the strengths and challenges of using a citizen science approach to study eclipse-induced meteorological changes, and could provide a template for a similar study for the August 2017 eclipse,” the team said.