Fly Over California Alongside a Space Shuttle!

A view of Endeavour and SCA over California from one of NASA’s F/A-18 chase planes (NASA/DFRC)

We’ve shared several videos from Endeavour’s trip to Los Angeles last week, taken by excited spectators along various portions of the flight path, but what was it like for the crews of the two NASA F/A-18 chase planes that accompanied the orbiter and SCA every step of the way?

Watch the video below, and put yourself in the pilot’s seat…

Shared by NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center, the video shows footage taken from the viewpoint of one of the chase planes as Endeavour was ferried aboard a Shuttle Carrier Aircraft from Edwards Air Force Base to Los Angeles International Airport.

Along the way SCA pilots Jeff Moultrie and Bill Rieke, both from NASA’s Johnson Space Center, guided the 747 over such landmarks as the State Capitol in Sacramento, the Golden Gate Bridge at San Francisco, and NASA’s Ames Research Center.

Once over the Los Angeles area Endeavour passed over well-known landmarks like Griffith Observatory, the Hollywood sign, Dodger Stadium, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Malibu Beach and the Santa Monica Pier, and Disneyland.

After several low flybys of the runway — some under 300 feet! — the SCA touched down at LAX on Runway 25L at 12:51 p.m. PDT.

NASA’s four F/A-18 Hornet aircraft, operated by Dryden Flight Research Center, are commonly called chase planes and fill the role of escort aircraft during research missions. They also are used as camera platforms for research missions that must be photographed or videotaped. Two of these chase planes accompanied Endeavour on its flight for such documentation as well as for security.

See more images of the F/A-18s here, and for more photos of Endeavour’s trip to California check out the NASA photographer photo set on Flickr.

Video: Dryden TV

Weekly SkyWatcher’s Forecast: September 24-30, 2012

Plato Crater - Credit: Damian Peach

“Shine on, shine on Harvest Moon… Up in the sky…” Oh! Howdy, fellow SkyWatchers! The seasons are most surely showing their changes in both hemispheres and this week marks the famous “Harvest Moon”. The Moon will very much be in the eyepiece this week, so enjoy some great studies. However, don’t put away your telescopes just yet! Bright skies are a great time to catch up on double star studies and variables. Whenever you’re ready, just meet me in the back yard…

Monday, September 24 – In 1970, the first unmanned, automated return of lunar material to the Earth occurred on this day when the Soviet’s Luna 16 returned with three ounces of the Moon. Its landing site was eastern Mare Fecunditatis. Look just west of the bright patch of Langrenus. Let’s walk upon the Moon this evening as we take a look at sunrise over one of the most often studied and mysterious of all craters – Plato. Located on the northern edge of Mare Imbrium and spanning 95 kilometers in diameter, Class IV Plato is simply a feature that all lunar observers check because of the many reports of unusual happenings. Over the years, mists, flashes of light, areas of brightness and darkness, and the appearance of small craters have become a part of Plato’s lore.

On October 9, 1945 an observer sketched and reported “a minute, but brilliant flash of light” inside the western rim. Lunar Orbiter 4 photos later showed where a new impact may have occurred. While Plato’s interior craterlets average between less than one and up to slightly more than two kilometers in diameter, many times they can be observed – and sometimes they cannot be seen at all under almost identical lighting conditions. No matter how many times you observe this crater, it is ever changing and very worthy of your attention!

Although tonight’s bright skies will make our next target a little difficult to find visually, look around four fingerwidths southwest of Delta Capricorni (RA 21 26 40 Dec -22 24 40) for Zeta. Also known as 34 Capricorni, Zeta is a unique binary system. Located about 398 light-years from Earth, the primary star is a yellow supergiant with some very unusual properties – it’s the warmest, most luminous barium star known. But that’s not all, because the B component is a white dwarf almost identical in size to our own Sun!

Tuesday, September 25 – Tonight would be a great opportunity to take another look at crater Eratosthenes. Just slightly north of lunar center, this easily spotted feature dangles at the end of the Apennine Mountain range like a yo-yo caught on a string. Its rugged walls and central peaks make for excellent viewing. If you look closely at the mountains northeast of Eratosthenes, you will see the high peak of Mons Wolff. Named for the Dutch philosopher and mathematician, this outstanding feature reaches 35 kilometers in height. To the southwest of Era-tosthenes you may also spot the ruined remains of crater Stadius. Very little is left of its walls and the floor is dotted with small strikes. Near the twin pair of punctuations to its south lie the remains of Surveyor 2! Now let’s journey to a very pretty star field as we head toward the western wing tip in Cygnus to have a look at Theta – also known as 13 Cygni. It is a beautiful main sequence star that is also considered by modern catalogs to be a double. For large telescopes, look for a faint (13th magnitude) companion to the west… But it’s also a wonderful optical triple!

Also in the field with Theta to the southeast is the Mira-type variable R Cygni, which ranges in magnitude from around 7 to 14 in slightly less than 430 days. This pulsating red star has a really quite interesting history that can be found at AAVSO, and is circumpolar for far northern observers. Check it out!

Wednesday, September 26 – Tonight on the Moon, let’s take an in-depth look at one of the most impressive of the southern lunar features – Clavius.

Although you cannot help but be drawn visually to this crater, let’s start at the southern limb near the terminator and work our way up. Your first sighting will be the large and shallow dual rings of Casatus with its central crater and Klaproth adjoining it. Further north is Blancanus with its series of very small interior craters, but wait until you see Clavius. Caught on the southeast wall is Rutherford with its central peak and crater Porter on the northeast wall. Look between them for the deep depression labeled D. West of D you will also see three outstanding impacts: C, N and J; while CB resides between D and Porter. The southern and southwest walls are also home to many impacts, and look carefully at the floor for many, many more! It has been often used as a test of a telescope’s resolving power to see just how many more craters you can find inside tremendous old Clavius. Power up and enjoy!

And if you’d like to visit an object that only requires eyes, then look no further than Eta Aquilae one fist-width due south of Altair…

Discovered by Pigot in 1784, this Cepheid-class variable has a precision rate of change of over a magnitude in a period of 7.17644 days. During this time it will reach of maximum of magnitude 3.7 and decline slowly over 5 days to a minimum of 4.5… Yet it only takes two days to brighten again! This period of expansion and contraction makes Eta very unique. To help gauge these changes, compare Eta to Beta on Altair’s same southeast side. When Eta is at maximum, they will be about equal in brightness.

Thursday, September 27 – Tonight exploring the Moon will be in order as one of the most graceful and recognizable lunar features will be prominent – Gassendi. As an ancient mountain-walled plain that sits proudly at the northern edge of Mare Humorum, Gassendi sports a bright ring and a triple central mountain peak that are within the range of binoculars.

Telescopic viewers will appreciate Gassendi at high power in order to see how its southern border has been eroded by lava flow. Also of note are the many rilles and ridges that exist inside the crater and the presence of the younger Gassendi A on the north wall. While viewing the Mare Humorum area, keep in mind that we are looking at an area about the size of the state of Arkansas. It is believed that a planetoid collision originally formed Mare Humorum. The incredible impact crushed the surface layers of the Moon resulting in a concentric “anticline” that can be traced out to twice the size of the original impact area. The floor of this huge crater then filled in with lava, and was once thought to have a greenish appearance but in recent years has more accurately been described as reddish. That’s one mighty big crater!

Tonight we’ll begin with an easy double star and make our way towards a more difficult one. Beautiful, bright and colorful, Beta Cygni is an excellent example of an easily split double star. As the second brightest star in the constellation of Cygnus, Albireo lies roughly in the center of the “Summer Triangle” making it a relatively simple target for even urban telescopes.

Albireo’s primary (or brightest) star is around magnitude 4 and has a striking orangish color. Its secondary (or B) star is slightly fainter at a bit less than magnitude 5, and often appears to most as blue, almost violet. The pair’s wide separation of 34? makes Beta Cygni an easy split for all telescopes at modest power, and even for larger binoculars. At approximately 410 light-years away, this colorful pair shows a visual separation of about 4400 AU, or around 660 billion kilometers. As Burnham noted, “It is worth contemplating, in any case, the fact that at least 55 solar systems could be lined up, edge-to-edge, across the space that separates the components of this famous double!”

Now let’s have a look at Delta. Located around 270 light-years away, Delta is known to be a more difficult binary star. Its duplicity was discovered by F. Struve in 1830, and it is a very tough test for smaller optics. Located no more than 220 AU away from the magnitude 3 parent star, the companion orbits anywhere from 300 to 540 years and is often rated as dim as 8th magnitude. If skies aren’t steady enough to split it tonight, try again! Both Beta and Delta are on many challenge lists.

Friday, September 28 – Tonight our primary lunar study is crater Kepler. Look for it as a bright point, slightly lunar north of center near the terminator. Its home is the Oceanus Procellarum – a sprawling dark mare composed primarily of dark minerals of low reflectivity (albedo) such as iron and magnesium. Bright, young Kepler will display a wonderfully developed ray system. The crater rim is very bright, consisting mostly of a pale rock called anorthosite. The “lines” extending from Kepler are fragments that were splashed out and flung across the lunar surface when the impact occurred. The region is also home to features known as “domes” – seen between the crater and the Carpathian Mountains. So unique is Kepler’s geological formation that it became the first crater mapped by U.S. Geological Survey in 1962.

Up next, we’ll have a look at the central star of the “Northern Cross” – Gamma Cygni. Also known as Sadr, this beautiful main sequence star lies at the northern edge of the “Great Rift.” Surrounded by a field of nebulosity known as IC 1310, second magnitude Gamma is very slowly approaching us, but still maintains an average distance of about 750 light-years. It is here in the rich, starry fields that the great dust cloud begins its stretch toward southern Centaurus – dividing the Milky Way into two streams. The dark region extending north of Gamma towards Deneb is often referred to as the “Northern Coalsack,” but its true designation is Lynds 906.

If you take a very close look at Sadr, you will find it has a well-separated 10th magnitude companion star, which is probably not related – yet in 1876, S. W. Burnham found that it itself is a very close double. Just to its north is NGC 6910 (Right Ascension: 20 : 23.1 – Declination: +40 : 47), a roughly 6th magnitude open cluster which displays a nice concentration in a small telescope. To the west is Collinder 419, another bright gathering that is nicely concentrated. South is Dolidze 43, a widely spaced group with two brighter stars on its southern perimeter. East is Dolidze 10, which is far richer in stars of various magnitudes and contains at least three binary systems.

Whether you use binoculars or telescopes, chances are you won’t see much nebulosity in this region – but the sheer population of stars and objects in this area makes a visit with Sadr worthy of your time!

Saturday, September 29 – Tonight we’re going to have a look at a lunar feature that goes beyond simply incredible – it’s downright weird. Start your journey by identifying Kepler and head due west across Oceanus Procellarum until you encounter the bright ring of crater Reiner. Spanning 30 kilometers, this crater isn’t anything in particular – just shallow-looking walls with a little hummock in the center. But, look further west and a little more north for an anomaly – Reiner Gamma.

Well, it’s bright. It’s slightly eye-shaped. But what exactly is it? Possessing no real elevation or depth above the lunar surface, Reiner Gamma could very well be an extremely young feature caused by a comet. Only three other such features exist – two on the lunar far side and one on Mercury. They are high albedo surface deposits with magnetic properties. Unlike a lunar ray of material ejected from below the surface, Reiner Gamma can be spotted during the daylight hours – when ray systems disappear. And, unlike other lunar formations, it never casts a shadow.

Reiner Gamma also causes a magnetic deviation on a barren world that has no magnetic field. This has many proposed origins, such as solar storms, volcanic gaseous activity, or even seismic waves. But, one of the best explanations for its presence is a cometary strike. It is believed that a split-nucleus comet, or cometary fragments, once impacted the area and the swirl of gases from the high velocity debris may have somehow changed the regolith. On the other hand, ejecta from an impact could have formed around a magnetic “hot spot,” much like a magnet attracts iron filings. No matter which theory is correct, the simple act of viewing Reiner Gamma and realizing that it is different from all other features on the Moon’s earthward facing side makes this journey worth the time!

When you’re done, let’s head about a fingerwidth south of Gamma Cygni to have a look at an open cluster well suited for all optics – M29 (Right Ascension: 20 : 23.9 – Declination: +38 : 3).

Discovered in 1764 by Charles Messier, this type D cluster has an overall brightness of about magnitude 7, but isn’t exactly rich in stars. Hanging out anywhere from 6000 to 7200 light-years away, one would assume this to be a very rich cluster and it may very well have hundreds of stars – but their light is blocked by a dust cloud a thousand times more dense than average. Approaching us at around 28 kilometers per second, this loose grouping could be as old as 10 million years and appears much like a miniature of the constellation of Ursa Major at low powers. Even though it isn’t the most spectacular in star-rich Cygnus, it is another Messier object to add to your list!

Sunday, September 30 – Today in 1880, Henry Draper must have been up very early indeed when he took the first photo of the Great Orion Nebula (M42). Although you might not wish to set up equipment before dawn, you can still use a pair of binoculars to view this awesome nebula! You’ll find Orion high in the southeast for the Northern Hemisphere, and M42 in the center of the “sword” that hangs below its bright “belt” of three stars.

Our seasons are changing – and so the seasons change on other planets, too. Today marks the universal date on which Northern Autumn, Southern Spring Equinox occurs on Mars. Keep an eye for subtle changes in surface features of the red planet!

This is also the Universal date the Moon will become Full and it will be the closest to the Autumnal Equinox. Because its orbit is more nearly parallel to the eastern horizon, it will rise at dusk for the next several nights in a row. On the average, the Moon rises about 50 minutes later each night, but at this time of year it’s around 20 minutes later for mid-northern latitudes and even less farther north. Because of this added light, the name “Harvest Moon” came about because it allowed farmers more time to work in the fields.

Often times we perceive the Harvest Moon as being more orange than at any other time of the year. The reason is not only scientific enough – but true. Coloration is caused by the scattering of the light by particles in our atmosphere. When the Moon is low, like now, we get more of that scattering effect and it truly does appear more orange. The very act of harvesting itself produces more dust and often times that coloration will last the whole night through. And we all know the size is only an “illusion”…

So, instead of cursing the Moon for hiding the deep sky gems tonight, enjoy it for what it is…a wonderful natural phenomenon that doesn’t even require a telescope!

Until next week? Ask for the Moon, but keep on reaching for the stars!

Curiosity Shows Off Its Credentials

Plaque on the exterior of Mars Science Laboratory, aka “Curiosity” (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Curiosity drops a few rather big names in recent images taken with its MAHLI (Mars Hand Lens Imager) camera: here we see a plaque affixed to its surface bearing the names and signatures of U.S. President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Office of Science and Technology Director John Holdren, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and other key figures responsible for making the Mars Exploration Program possible.

You never know… even on another planet it can’t hurt to have friends in high places!

The image was captured by MAHLI on September 19, the 44th sol of the MSL mission. (See the original raw downlink here.)

The rectangular plaque is made of anodized aluminum, measuring 3.94 inches (100 mm) high by 3.23 inches (82 mm) wide. It’s attached to the front left side of Curiosity’s deck with four bolts. (Explore Curiosity in 3D here.)

Dust, pebbles and variously-sized bits of Mars can be seen scattered around the plaque and deck, leftover detritus from the rover’s landing.

The complete list of signatures is:

Barack Obama, President, United States of America

Joe Biden, Vice President

John P. Holdren, Director, Office of Science and Technology Policy

Charles F. Bolden, Jr., Administrator, National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Edward J. Weiler, Associate Administrator, Science Mission Directorate (2008–2011)

James Green, Director, Planetary Sciences Division

Doug McCuistion, Director, Mars Exploration Program

Michael Meyer, Program Scientist, Mars Exploration Program

David Lavery, Program Executive, Mars Science Laboratory

In another image taken on the same sol, Curiosity shows some national pride with a circular medallion decorated with the stars and stripes of the American flag. The 68-mm-wide circular aluminum plate is affixed to one of the rover’s rocker arms. It’s just one of its four “mobility logos” — the others having the NASA logo, the JPL logo and the Curiosity mission logo.

Curiosity’s “stars and stripes” American flag mobility logo (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

The main purpose of Curiosity’s MAHLI camera is to acquire close-up, high-resolution views of rocks and soil at the rover’s Gale Crater field site. Developed for NASA by Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego, CA, the camera is capable of focusing on any target at distances of about 0.8 inch (2.1 centimeters) to infinity, providing versatility for other uses, such as views of the rover itself from different angles.

Get more technical information about the MAHLI camera here.

Final Push: Help Uwingu Create a New Concept for Funding Space Exploration and Astronomy

We’ve written about Uwingu previously, and this creative new concept for creating funding for space exploration and astronomy is now in their final push to reach their Indigogo goal of raising an initial $75,000 through their Indiegogo page (similar to Kickstarter) to get the company going. After that, they hope to be self-sufficient and build enough resources to be a source of grants and funding for space and astronomy research. Indigogo provided the group a rare extension in their funding-raising drive, which now goes through Monday night, September 24 at 11:59PM Pacific Time.

Why Uwingu?

“It seems like every single year there is a funding problem for space researchers and educators, and every year it is something different,” said one the people behind Uwingu, Alan Stern, speaking on Colorado Public Radio. “It’s the economy or Congress or budget overruns, or cuts from the presidential administration, but every year there is a budget battle. … We started to think, what could we do that could make a difference?”

Stern is a huge name in the space and planetary science community, and he’s currently the principal investigator on the New Horizons mission to Pluto, and was formerly Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate.

Stern and the impressive group of individuals from the space and astronomy community who have teamed up to do this had the idea of creating a for-profit company that sells space themed products that children, educators, hobbyists — a wide range of people — who can purchase and enjoy. Half of all revenue go towards funding space research and education, and the other will go towards the costs of creating what they sell. Plans are to sell entertaining and educational apps about space and other themes, starting next month.

“We are asking people to go the Indiegogo page, take a look and consider participating, and then to please pass it on to others you know.” Stern told Universe Today. “For everyone 10 people you send it to, maybe one will contribute. This needs to grow organically by people passing it on through the internet. We’re hoping the space and astronomy people will help give us a start, but when it launches with the real first products out into the broader public, we think it will be a real breakout.”

“If we can get that message across, I think it will fly. I have faith in this,” Stern added.

As the funding period closes out, Stern will be on the Coast-to-Coast radio show with George Noory from 10-midnight PDT on Monday, September 24, so listen to him talk about Uwingu, New Horizons and the other missions he is part of.

To contribute to the project, or to learn more about Uwingu, visit the company’s Indiegogo page:

So You Want to Look at the Moon?

The Moon. Photo credit: NASA.

This Saturday September 22, 2012 marks the 3rd annual International Observe the Moon Night (InOMN), when people all over the world will gather to observe the Moon. But what do you do the rest of the year? Luckily, in today’s internet age, there is a great deal of lunar data, from a range of missions, available on-line for you to look at. Also, some great tools have been developed that make data easy to access, put into context, and interpret, giving everyone the power to explore the Moon like a scientist. All you need to do it click on the URL and you’re off…

InOMN was originally started in as a celebration of the wonderful lunar data that was being returned by missions such as the Lunar Reconaissance Orbiter, Chandrayaan-1, and other spacecraft. Since then it has grown to phenomenal proportions, with hundreds of individual events hosted literally all over the world. To learn more about InOMN, or to find the event nearest you, visit the InOMN website.

But what do you do if there is no event being hosted near you, or if the weather turns cloudy in your geographic region? You can always join the CosmoQuest InOMN Hangout on Google+.

For more information about InOMN, listen to a 365 Days of Astronomy podcast on this year’s event.

However, a true passion and interest in the Moon is not a one day thing. What if you want to look at the Moon on some other day, or see details that are too small to be resolved by even the largest telescopes on Earth? As it happens, data from those same missions that inspired the very first InOMN is very easy for the average person to see, any time they want to. Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3) data from the Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft can be accessed on-line using the ACT-REACT Quick Map tool.

ACT-REACT Quick Map tool
ACT-REACT Quick Map ( places skinny little strips of high resolution data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera into context on the Moon. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University.


This LROC version of the ACT-REACT Quick Map tool (there is also a MESSENGER version for Mercury data) was originally developed by the LROC team to place skinny little strips of LROC Narrow Angle Camera data into context on the Moon, and to help with targeting for further high resolution data collection. They partnered with software firm Applied Coherent Technology (ACT) to create this relatively user friendly on-line tool, and then made it accessible for anyone who wants to use it!

The interface of the ACT-REACT Quick Map tool is fairly intuitive. If you have used Google Maps, you should be able to navigate your way around fairly quickly. For more details on the available features, check out the LROC data user tutorial and the M3 data user tutorial. Though, one of the first things you might want to know how to do is to turn off the bright colours that represent elevation (uncheck the LROC WAC Color Shaded Relief checkbox). This shaded relief layer is great when you want to understand the topography of fairly large features, but is more distracting than helpful when looking at highest resolution data.

Colour Shaded Relief layer
The colour shaded relief data is great at showing off the elevation of large features, but is less useful when zoomed in to smaller scales. Turn it off by unchecking the LROC WAC Color Shaded Relief checkbox. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University


The most exciting thing about the ACT-REACT Quick Map tool is that it makes these amazing lunar data sets available to the public in a way that was never possible before. Anyone sitting at their computer at home can study the Moon, viewing large lunar features, like impact basins and maria, and then zooming into to see details as small as their desk. This kind of technological advance opens the door for every enthusiast to conduct their own personal explorations of the Moon, and gives them an opportunity to see and think like the scientists who are currently working with this data to discover new and exciting information about our Moon.

Landslides Zoom-In
Zooming in allows you to see spectacular landslides along the walls of a crater. At the highest resolutions, individual boulders can be seen. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University


So, after International Observe the Moon Night is over, don’t wait until next year to look at the Moon again. Head over to ACT-REACT Quick Map and start exploring!

Fireball Meteor or Re-Entering Satellite? “Something” Broke Up Over the UK on Friday

Twitter is all abuzz with sightings of a huge fireball meteor that streaked across the skies Friday night at approximately 22:00 UTC. There are reports from Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Central England.

I’m going to link a bunch of videos so you can check out the event from multiple angles, but I want to make a completely unscientific judgement: it kind of looks like a re-entering spacecraft. Take a look at what the Jules Verne spacecraft looked like when it came back into the Earth’s atmosphere. See how it broke up into all those pieces? And don’t let anyone fool you with this picture. It was taken about 3 years ago in the Netherlands.

Phil made a similar observation, but he’s still on the fence. We’ll have to wait for someone official to tell us what it was.

Did you see it? Did you get a video?

I’ll give you an update as soon as I know anything else.
Continue reading “Fireball Meteor or Re-Entering Satellite? “Something” Broke Up Over the UK on Friday”

Space Shuttle Endeavour Flies Over Historic Golden Gate Bridge (and some chick’s house in LA)

California was invaded by an unusual flying duo today: the Space Shuttle Endeavour sitting atop a 747 airplane, the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft. Above, you can watch it they flew over the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and below are more images and video of the flybys from various locations, including a video by GamerChick5567, who said, “IT FLEW OVER MY HOUSE!!!! :P” Endeavour made its final landing at LAX in Los Angeles, and will be transported to its permanent home at the California Science Center next month.

There is a “Spot The Shuttle” page on NASA’s Flickr stream where people have been uploading their images of the shuttle flying over, so check them out here.

Flying over Monteray Bay Aquarium:

Over Moffett Field/Ames Research Center

And here’s GamerChick5567’s video:

Space shuttle Endeavour, mounted atop a NASA 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA) performs a low flyby at Los Angeles International Airport, Friday, Sept. 21, 2012. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls. See more at NASAHQ’s photo stream on Flickr.

Weird Mars Rock Has Interesting Back Story

The rock chosen for the first contact science investigations for the Curiosity rover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The rock chosen for the first contact science investigations for the Curiosity rover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Mars Science Laboratory team has identified their target for the first full-up contact science investigations using all the instruments attached to the Curiosity rover’s robotic arm. And ‘target’ is the operative word here, as this rock will be shot with Curiosity’s laser to help determine it chemical makeup. Interestingly, it has an unusual pyramid shape, and it was described as a “cool-looking rock sitting out on the plains of Mars,” by MSL project scientist John Grotzinger. But the rock now has a name, and while we don’t know everything about it yet, like its namesake, this rock likely has a very interesting back story.

The rock has been dubbed “Jake Matijevic,” named for the surface operations systems engineer for all the Mars rover missions so far. But unfortunately, Matijevic passed away at age 64 just days after Curiosity touched down on Mars last month. Matijevic was one of the original technology developers for rovers on Mars — figuring out how to link the mechanics, avionics and all the systems together. He led the surface operations for the Sojourner rover in 1996, worked for years with the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, and was instrumental in getting the Curiosity rover ready for its mission.

Matijevic originally was a mathematician and he developed the Matijevic Theorem, which MSL’s John Cook described as “an obscure mathematical theorem” but others have said it was “one of the most beautiful results of recent years in commutative algebra.”

“To honor Jake and his contributions we’ve named the first rock where we’re going to do contact science after him,” said Grotzinger.

The rock named Jake is about 25 centimeters (10 inches) tall and 40 cm (16 in) wide at the base, so it’s not a very large rock, nor is it very eccentric. It likely is a shapely lump of basic basalt ejecta. It is uniform in color and is actually similar in size, shape and composition to the first rock studied by the Spirit rover over eight years ago. But being a rather ordinary rock is a good thing, said Grotzinger.

“The science team has had interest for some time to find a rock that is relatively uniform in composition to do comparisons,” between the ChemCam (the laser-zapper tool) and the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS), Grotziner said, to calibrate both instruments, especially the ChemCam, which is a new version of an instrument that is on the MER rovers.

“Here we get to really test a comparison between something that is tried and true with the latest and greatest technology,” he said.

Grotziner noted that most of the terrain they are seeing so far in Gale Crater has a rather uniform surface soil with some bedrock peeking out occasionally. But darker rocks like Jake, just sitting on the surface, are not quite so common. So how did Jake get there?
“Our general consensus is that it might be a piece of secondary of impact ejecta, maybe from an impact somewhere else, maybe outside of Gale Crater,” Grotziner said, “where a rock was thrown into Gale Crater and it has just sat there for a long time. It appears to have weathered more slowly than the stuff that’s around it, so that means it’s probably a harder rock.”

So a rock blasted from a huge impact on another location on Mars ends up sitting in Gale Crater where the Curiosity rover is going to zap it with a laser.

Oh, the stories this rock will be able to tell. And hopefully the instruments on Curiosity will allow the rock to divulge its secrets.

This map shows the route driven by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity through the 43rd Martian day, or sol, of the rover’s mission on Mars (Sept. 19, 2012). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

What Caused the Recent Explosion at Jupiter?

An impact on Jupiter captured about 6:35 am on Sept. 10, 2012 from Dallas, Texas USA. Credit: George Hall.

A bright flash was spotted on Jupiter early on the morning of September 10, 2012, and astronomers were hoping to later see an impact “scar” which would provide more information about the object that slammed into the giant gas planet. Was it a comet, asteroid or a smaller meteor? But alas, no impact scar or debris field showed up on Jupiter’s face and the nature of this explosion may remain a mystery.

“By performing spectroscopic measurement of the debris field we hope to be capable of determining the nature of the impactor,” SETI astronomer Franck Marchis told Universe Today via email. “Without debris field it is virtually impossible since the bolide burned in the upper atmosphere. One day we may be capable of recorded a spectrum of the meteor itself (during the impact) but right now we don’t have such capabilities.”

The flash was first spotted by Dan Peterson, an amateur astronomer from Racine, Wisconsin who saw the flash as he was looking through a telescope, but he wasn’t recording his observations. He posted about his sighting on the Association of Lunar & Planetary Observers message board (ALPO), reporting the explosion, which occurred inside the southern edge of Jupiter’s northern equatorial belt of clouds.

Astrophotographer George Hall of Dallas, Texas happened to be shooting video of Jupiter at the time – although he wasn’t actually watching Jupiter himself. When he heard about Petersen’s visual, Hall reviewed his video and saw he had captured the flash at 6:35 a.m. CDT.

Video © George Hall. All rights reserved, used with permission.

Many astronomers were waiting for the next day when the impact region would be visible again to look for a debris field, as the explosion looked very similar to an impact that occurred in June 2010, which left an impact scar that was visible for several hours.

However, astronomer Mike Wong from the University of California, Berkeley had stayed up all night to estimate the amount of energy delivered by this fireball. As he posted on his blog, he predicted “that this event is too small to create a visible impact scar.”

He ended up being right.

Since there was no impact scar, the space telescopes like Hubble weren’t activated to take a look.

But some ground-based telescopes, like NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility did take a look. Astronomer Glenn Orton, a senior research scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory used the IRTF 3-meter telescope to look at Jupiter in the near-infrared, but came up empty in finding any debris or scar.

Observations of Jupiter taken with the IRTF telescope and the SpeX guide camera. The dark circle indicates the location of the flash observed on September 10 2012 (credit: G. Orton, Jet Propulsion Laboratory)

Orton was quoted in an article on ABC that he thinks a frozen comet may be the culprit.

“Most things in that part of the solar system are called Jupiter-family comets,” Orton said. “They’re ice balls that move in and have started co-orbiting around Jupiter.”

But Marchis said that since the object appears to have not entered the inner part of the planet atmosphere, the IR observation confirms that it was most likely a meteor.

And another scientist, Dr. Tony Phillips, an astronomer and the person behind, was interviewed on NPR’s Science Friday last week and he said the explosion was probably a small asteroid hitting Jupiter, but added, “We’ll probably never know for sure,”

But whatever it was, the event demonstrates how different astronomy is now from what it was just a few years ago.

“What is remarkable today is that amateur astronomers can detect such an event, and by using modern communication tools, the world of astronomers is instantaneously aware of it,” Marchis said. “Our solar system is full of those transient events (impact, volcanoes, storms), their early detection and monitoring is a great opportunity to characterize these planets or satellites, shining light on area of these bodies that cannot be seen when they are in their calm state.”

But there were a few dissenters, too. A small number of those posting on the astronomy community message boards said that since there wasn’t any scar visible, that the event really didn’t happen, and that Hall and Petersen were just seeing things. This may have been fueled by an initial discrepancy between Hall and Petersen’s timing report, but it was solved when Petersen found out that his clock was running 26 seconds fast. Others came up with different ideas about what it might have been, which included light from one of Jupiter’s moons, Adrastea, which was entering the eastern limb of Jupiter at about the same the time, to other, more wilder notions that might have involved alien spaceships.

But most astronomers concur the event did occur.

“Two observers reported the same event at almost the same time does not look to me that we could argue about the genuineness of the event,” Marchis said, noting that previous events like this have occurred in the past, with no impact scars. “Several events were observed in 1981 and 2010 as well and there were no scar as well. We can simply assume that the impactor was too small to reach the inner part of Jupiter atmosphere. It burned before reaching the lower deck because it was relatively small.”

Phillips mentioned that years ago, astronomers were skeptical that impacts like this happened in the Solar System today, but that all changed when Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 impacted Jupiter in 1994, and with hundreds of telescopes watching the event, including the Hubble Space Telescope, “we got to see what a comet impact looked like, and analyze the chemical signature,” Phillips said.

But in this case, astronomers will very likely never know what caused the flash on Jupiter on September 10, 2012. But don’t worry – this won’t be the last time something like this happens. Marchis said in a comment on his blog that based on the current observations, it’s estimated that 50 meteors like this — or ones even more energetic — could be seen on Jupiter per year. We just don’t happen to catch very many of them in the act of occurring.

And if you’re excited about seeing explosions on other worlds, Jupiter isn’t the only place this happens. All our planets and moons get smacked occasionally, as the impact craters on the rocky bodies can attest. The best place to see this happening might be our own Moon. If you have a big enough telescope, you can join a group run through the Marshall Space Flight Center that has been watching the dark terrain of the Moon. They have observed over 260 explosions in the past 7 years.

Marchis said a better organized network of amateur astronomers watching Jupiter is important.

“I think it is important to organize a network of small telescopes that will monitor continuously Jupiter over a long period of time to be capable of estimating the flux of meteors in the outer part of the solar system, helping us to better estimate the age of icy satellite surface of Jupiter but also Saturn,” he said via email. “This is something we could do by combining professional and amateur astronomer efforts.”

Look for future updates as astronomers are trying to organize such a network.

Astrophoto: Crescent Moon Crossing

Astrophotographer Ken Lord caught an airplane crossing in front of a setting crescent Moon in British Columbia, Canada. Credit: Ken Lord

The things you can see out your door! On a previous image in this sequence, Ken Lord from British Columbia, Canada said he stuck his head out the door and happened to see a great view of the setting crescent Moon, so he ran and got his camera, took a few shots, and then managed to capture an airplane crossing directly in front of the beautiful crescent. Ken notes the mountains on the horizon are on Vancouver Island.

He used a Canon T1i, 170mm, 0.8 second exposure, ISO3200, F5.6. See more of Ken’s images at his Flickr page.

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