Space & Planetary Science: January 2008 Archives

The Stars Like Dust

The Growing-up of a Star, ESO

"The astronomers had a close look at the object known as MWC 147, lying about 2,600 light years away towards the constellation of Monoceros ('the Unicorn'). MWC 147 belongs to the family of Herbig Ae/Be objects. These have a few times the mass of our Sun and are still forming, increasing in mass by swallowing material present in a surrounding disc."

Editor's note: I see a lot of stunning images every day as I prepare and post items on Yesterday, one image passed through my gaze and caused me to take notice.

This image reminded me of one I first saw 30 years ago - in a (pre-Hubble) book called "Colours of the Stars" - an image of a star field so dense that you could see thousands of them in a glance with no effort. Almost like stepping stones across a brook. This new image from ESO, titled "Around MWC 147", shows a similar distribution of stars. In some places, at full resolution, it seems that the stars are bumping into each other - almost like couscous or grits in a pot of hot water.

Of course, they are not bumping into each other - we are looking at a 2D image of a vast 3D structure. That said, the clustering of so many stars gives them a commonality - almost Saganesque i.e. like the proverbial grains of sand often used to describe how many stars there are.

As always, there are artifacts in electronic images - places where images have been pasted together or portions where data collection was less than perfect. Stars that are a bit less than a pixel in size do not fully appear. Kind of like watching digital cable TV when the bandwidth drops and things start to break down to isolated clusters of pixels.

In looking at the hi-res version of this image I noticed some of these artifacts - seams in the image. Given the sheer density of the stars in this image, I could not help but think that the home star of a sentient civilization could have inadvertently been omitted due to someone's Photoshop skills or the sensitivity of a CCD. A few pixels and someone's history is omitted.

Just recall the scene from the film "Apollo 13" where Tom Hanks (as Jim Lovell) holds his thumb up to obscure Earth - and his reaction to be being able to do so.

Zooming back out a bit, I get this impression that stars are not rare things. Indeed, they are common. And even if the conditions for life require a rather rare confluence of conditions, ample opportunities for life exist due to the sheer number of stars.

As I look at this image, I cannot help but think of the title of an Isaac Asimov novel "The Stars Like Dust" - for that is exactly what I am seeing.

So, take that, those of you out there who think we can learn nothing from exploring space - and ourselves - virtually and in person.

Space Imagery as Art

Editor's note: I was doing my regular walk through raw images sent back from Saturn by Cassini. The images are organized on the webpage as thumbnails, 12 at a time. This time, something emergent appeared in my mind as I looked at several pages of thumbnails. The first thing that came to mind - instantly - was "Frank Stella".

Now, some of you may get this instantly. Most of you will not. You see, I served time as an art major in the 70s and my brother-in-law runs a modern art museum in The Netherlands. My point? Pictures from space can be pretty and often inspirational in their own right as individual works of art. However, they can evoke unexpected responses when seen in groupings. Perhaps someone at NASA should be thinking of a travelling exhibit - an art exhibit in a large format - of images from space.

There is a precedent: NASA just took the transcendent step of producing a tactile art book of images taken by spacecraft for the blind.

Editor's note: Several readers brought these art activities to my attention today:

From Earth to the Universe - an exhibit of astronomical images, International Year of Astronomy

"IYA2009 is an unprecedented opportunity to present astronomy to the global community in a way that has never been done before. The "From Earth to the Universe" project is an exhibition arranged by the IYA2009 that will bring these images to a wider audience in non-traditional venues such as public parks and gardens, art museums, shopping malls and metro stations."

Universal art - Photos from the Hubble Space Telescope show that science and beauty go hand in hand, Baltimore Sun

"Mapping the Cosmos: Images from the Hubble Space Telescope presents a vision of the universe that normally is invisible to us, in part because of the great distances involved and the obscuring effects of our atmosphere, and in part because Hubble's unblinking eye, orbiting 350 miles above Earth's surface, detects wavelengths of light that our eyes can't see."

Reader note: This book, "Touch the Invisible Sky," is actually just the latest in a series of books for the visually impaired (including Touch the Stars, Touch the Sun, and Touch the Universe). The author's website has more information: The prototype for the next book in the series, Touch the Solar System, is under development.

Mapping Half a New World

Counting Mercury's Craters

"On January 14, 2008, MESSENGER flew by Mercury and snapped images of a large portion of the surface that had not been previously seen by spacecraft. Ever since the first images were received back on Earth one day later, January 15, MESSENGER team members have been closely examining and studying this "new" terrain with great interest and excitement."

Stardust comet dust resembles asteroid materials

"Contrary to expectations for a small icy body, much of the comet dust returned by the Stardust mission formed very close to the young sun and was altered from the solar system's early materials. When the Stardust mission returned to Earth with samples from the comet Wild 2 in 2006, scientists knew the material would provide new clues about the formation of our solar system, but they didn't know exactly how."

Big Rock Set To Buzz Earth

Asteroid to Make Rare Close Flyby of Earth January 29

"Scientists are monitoring the orbit of asteroid 2007 TU24. The asteroid, believed to be between 150 meters (500 feet) and 610 meters (2,000 feet) in size, is expected to fly past Earth on Jan. 29, with its closest distance being about 537,500 kilometers (334,000 miles) at 12:33 a.m. Pacific time (3:33 a.m. Eastern time). It should be observable that night by amateur astronomers with modest-sized telescopes."

NASA MESSENGER's First Look at Mercury's Previously Unseen Side

"When Mariner 10 flew past Mercury three times in 1974 and 1975, the same hemisphere was in sunlight during each encounter. As a consequence, Mariner 10 was able to image less than half the planet. Planetary scientists have wondered for more than 30 years about what spacecraft images might reveal about the hemisphere of Mercury that Mariner 10 never viewed."

Editor's note: Looks like the Space Interferometry Mission (SIM) is not only back, but it is going to eat SMD's lunch for the remainder of this decade and part of the next. The Omnibus Appropriations bill signed into law in December 2007 brings SIM back to life and puts it on a path toward launch.

If you look at this document, page 108, you will see wording for SIM inserted into legislation at the insistence of JPL via its congressional supporters:

"A total of $60,000,000, an increase of $38,400,000 above the budget request, has been provided for the Space Interferometry Mission (SIM). The Appropriations Committees disagree with the Administration's budget request of refocusing the Navigator Program to fund only core interferometry and related planet-finding science and reducing SIM to a development program. It should be noted that this mission was recommended by the National Academies Decadal Astrophysics report in 1990 and 2000 and should be considered a priority. With the funds proposed, NASA is to begin the development phase of the program in order to capitalize on more than $300,000,000 already invested by the agency. The SIM program has successfully passed all its technological milestones and is thus ready for development."

This means that Congress is pushing to actually do this mission i.e. it is pushing it from "studies" and "risk reduction" into an overt development phase. Of course, SIM development was not in SMD's budget. In so doing, JPL and its Congressional friends are putting NASA on a clear path toward needing more than $1 billion to make this mission happen over the coming years - money that will simply get carved out of the top line for SMD's budget for years to come. Of course, this is a budget that has no prospects for growth to counter this unplanned for addition - a budget many complain has already suffered too much at the hands of the White House and Congress. Stay tuned - the planetary science community is not exactly happy about this. Let's see if the Planetary Society gets hot and bothered by this Pasadena-centric issue.

Address By Mike Griffin Before the American Astronomical Society

"But let me be clear. As it stands now, my recommendations have not been adopted. The Fiscal Year 2008 Congressional direction for NASA "to begin the development phase" of SIM is quite clear. It disregards the community-based recommendations of the NRC and NASA's other advisory committees for maintaining a balanced portfolio of large and small missions, along with basic research and technology investments. The Congress does not dream up such direction on its own; clearly, external advocacy for SIM has been successful. If it stands, then the mission will be executed, and the remainder of the astrophysics portfolio will suffer. I hope this is what you want, because it appears likely to be what you will get."

Editor's update: Now, according to Nature, the name of the lobbying firm, the organization who paid it to lobby, they target of the lobbying is clear:

Funding edict for mission has NASA over a barrel, Nature

"Such advocacy is not a secret; nearly all major research institutions have a presence on Capitol Hill. SIM is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, which, as a NASA research centre, is forbidden from directly lobbying Congress. But the lab's operator, the California Institute of Technology, also in Pasadena, can. It has previously employed Washington-based Lewis-Burke Associates to lobby for it. Certainly, someone was able to bend the ear of Adam Schiff, a Democrat who represents Pasadena in the House of Representatives. Schiff is on the subcommittee responsible for funding NASA, and he was instrumental in pushing through the language specifying $60 million for SIM, saying the project is too important scientifically for NASA to kill it. "Congress is not willing to take a back seat on this," Schiff says."

Lewis-Burke Associates - note their clients

Countdown to Mercury Flyby

Today MESSENGER Flies by Mercury!

"Today, at 19:04:39 UTC (2:04:39 pm EST), MESSENGER will fly 200 kilometers (124 miles) above Mercurys surface. As the spacecraft continues to speed toward the planet, the Narrow Angle Camera, part of the Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS) instrument, acquired this crescent view of Mercury. The image was taken on January 13, when the spacecraft was about 760,000 kilometers (470,000 miles) from Mercury. Mercury is about 4,880 kilometers (about 3,030 miles) in diameter, and the smallest feature visible in this image is about 20 kilometers (12 miles) across."
MercuryToday (Twitter)

MESSENGER Set for Historic Mercury Flyby

"On January 9, 2008, the MESSENGER spacecraft snapped one of its first images of Mercury at a distance of about 2.7 million kilometers (1.7 million miles) from the planet. The image was acquired with the Narrow Angle Camera, one half of MESSENGER's Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS) instrument."

MESSENGER Team Receives First Optical Navigation Images of Mercury, Mercury Today

"MESSENGER mission operators at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md., have received the first eight optical navigation images from the spacecraft."

NASA Teleconference to Preview Messenger's Flyby of Mercury, Mercury Today

"NASA will host a media teleconference at 1 p.m. EST on Thursday, Jan. 10, to preview the historic Jan. 14 spacecraft flight past Mercury that will explore some of the last major never-seen-before terrain in the inner solar system."
MercuryToday (Twitter)

Favorite Cassini Image Contest Draws Space Enthusiasts, And Winners, From Across The Globe, Space Science Institute

"Thousands of enthusiastic fans of NASA's Saturn-orbiting Cassini spacecraft have chosen a color picture of a tiny, dot-like planet Earth, cradled by Saturn's rings during a total solar eclipse, as the most popular image of all those so far returned by the Cassini mission. People from across the globe visited the official website of Cassini's Imaging Team,, during the month of December to vote for their favorites in the categories of color images, black & white images and movies."

Editor's update: According to NASA PAO sources there is no ITAR sensitive material in this report online at NESC. What is odd is why they did not issue this report back in 2006 - but rather just released a portion thereof sans correspondence and other items. Oh well.

Overview of the DART Mishap Investigation Results - For Public Release (15 May 2006)

"NASA has completed its assessment of the DART MIB report, which included a classification review by the Department of Defense. The report was found to be NASA-sensitive, but unclassified, because it contained information restricted by International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) and Export Administration Regulations (EAR). As a result, the DART mishap investigation report was deemed not releasable to the public. The following provides an overview of publicly releasable findings and recommendations regarding the DART mishap."

Editor's update: Well, here is the full MIB report (or something certainly much longer than the summary that was released) online at NESC. So much for ITAR concerns, I guess.

New Year's Message From Alan Stern Associate Administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate

"Make no mistake, we understand that there is far more work in front of us than behind us to turn SMD around, but we have already made some very real progress. So as this New Year 2008 dawns, I want to provide you with some examples of what we accomplished across our Earth and space science programs since April of 2007 when our new team took the reigns at SMD. Then I will say some things about the challenges that face us this year."

NASA Solicitation: Simplifying NASA Announcements of Opportunity - Science Mission Directorate

"Alan Stern, Associate Administrator for Science Mission Directorate (SMD), has initiated an effort to simplify NASA Announcements of Opportunity (AOs). This AO simplification effort is being led by Paul Hertz, Senior Advisor in SMD at NASA Headquarters responsible for the AO process, and Brad Perry, Head of the Science Support Office at NASA Langley research center and responsible for the technical/ management/ cost (TMC) review process."

Tough Love at SMD

Wielding a Cost-Cutting Ax, and Often, at NASA, NY Times

"With today's tight budgets, he said, it is unfair to expect NASA to raid other programs or stop initiating programs to pay for the excessive costs of current projects. "The mission that makes the mess is responsible for cleaning it up," Dr. Stern said. He acknowledged that NASA shared responsibility for some problems, noting that "the blame goes all around." The agency needs to change the way it does business, he said, in part by avoiding the tendency to micromanage projects and by doing a better job of picking more experienced people to lead programs. "The person at the helm should not be a rookie," he said."



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This page is an archive of entries in the Space & Planetary Science category from January 2008.

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