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America in Space-February 2009Posted Sunday, February 22, 2009, at 10:26 PM
(courtesy NASA)--47 years ago February 20, John Glenn is loaded onto the Mercury spacecraft, Friendship 7 to become the first American to orbit the Earth.
To start off with the big, the measured motions of stars within our home galaxy, the Milky Way, has led to the discovery that it is about 50% more massive than previously thought--the Milky Way is about 3 trillion (that's 3,000,000,000,000) times the mass of our Sun. The Sun is about 300,000 times the mass of the Earth. With billions of galaxies, to say the Universe is beyond comprehension is an understatement.
The shuttle flight to the space station has been postponed to an unknown date, due to debris found from damage to the valves connecting the external fuel tank to the 3 main shuttle engines during the last flight. This problem, being a possible danger, is being thoroughly investigated for safety reasons. The STS-119 flight is to install the final massive solar panel to the station, enabling a permanent residency of 6 astronauts later this year, rather than the current 3. The shuttle flight of May 2009 to repair the Hubble Space telescope will probably go on as scheduled, unless the STS-119 gets the shuttle program too far behind schedule.
In case you haven't heard, 2009 is the International Year of Astronomy, commemorating the 400th year since Galileo first observed the sky with a new invention, the telescope. His primitive instrument completely changed mankind's conception of space, proving the Earth revolved around the Sun. A podcast is being released on space each day of 2009 by the IYA, called "The 365 Days of Astronomy", at http://365daysofastronomy.org/, provided by astronomers around the world. I released the podcast of February 8, 2009, featuring the record-setting Paragould, Arkansas meteorite, available as a sound download or written transcript at http://365daysofastronomy.org/2009/02/08.... A piece of this meteorite, from my collection, will be at the Craighead County Library, Jonesboro, Arkansas through most of March, and will then be at the Matilda Pfeiffer Museum at Piggott, Arkansas.
On February 10, for the first time in the history of the space program, 2 satellites in orbit collided over Siberia, destroying the both of them. The debris from the active U.S. satellite, Iridium, and an inactive Russian Cosmos is now presenting a small, but real threat to satellites and astronauts. Space is so huge that this type of collision happened for the first time in over 50 years of space exploration.
Current U.S. planetary spacecraft include the Messenger, on its way to being the first spacecraft in history to orbit Mercury in March of 2011. The designers of the Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, just celebrated the 5th anniversary of these highly successful, and still operating, robots on the red planet. At a designed lifetime of 90 days, they have exceeded expectations 20 times. The Dawn spacecraft also flew by Mars for a gravity assist to its destinations, asteroid Vesta and dwarf planet (formerly the largest asteroid) Ceres. At Saturn, Cassini is in a 2-year extended mission, exceeding the original 4-year mission. Observed from the Earth, Saturn is in the process of losing its rings--they will be edge on in late 2009, and, at about 20 feet in thickness, are invisible in any telescope at the 800 million mile distant Earth. Millions of miles beyond the orbit of Saturn, the New Horizons is over 1/3 of the way to its destination, Pluto, for a July 2015 flyby.
Speaking of Mars, telescopes have detected the strong presence of methane in the atmosphere at various locations. Methane can indicate water and carbon dioxide combining underground (under high pressure and temperature), rusting, or the presence of underground life. The next rover, the Mars Science Laboratory, may land in one of these areas to check for the possibility of life--of course extraterrestrial life of any type would be a moment for the history books.
Recently, a gamma ray telescope was launched into orbit, later named the Fermi telescope. One of the first Gamma Ray Bursts to be detected by this satellite was the most powerful GRB ever seen, the equivalent of over 9,000 supernovae, the most powerful explosion ever seen in the universe--more energy than the entire 10 billion year lifetime of the Sun. It was over 10 billion light years from earth--taking place early in the history of the Universe. As I said before--the universe is incomprehensible.
Scheduled for launch soon: February 24-the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, to measure the carbon dioxide greenhouse gas over the entire earth, to study how the gas is stored or absorbed by the earth and seas, and tell how the global warming problem is developing. On March 5-the Kepler mission, using a telescope to accurately measure the brightness of 100,000 stars. Any periodic dimming of a star can indicate the transit of an extrasolar planet across the star's disc. Kepler can detect the presence of planets as small as Earth, their size, orbit, and the possibility of them being in a habitable zone around the star.
As always, for a free presentation by a NASA Solar System Ambassador for your school or organization, see the SSA website at http://www2.jpl.nasa.gov/ambassador/inde... (my page is at http://www2.jpl.nasa.gov/ambassador/prof....
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Kenneth Renshaw NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador/Saturn Observation Campaign Kenneth is one of 494 volunteer educators and astronomers who donate their time to educate America's youth, and the general public, about astronomy and the U.S. space program. Organized in 1999 by NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab,it focuses on spacecraft built by the JPL such as Voyager, Mars Rover, Galileo, Cassini as well as the Hubble Space Telescope. Renshaw is one of four ambassadors in Arkansas, and makes presentations to all age and experience groups from pre-school to university science level. His official NASA website it www2.jpl.nasa.gov/ambassador/profiles/Kenneth_Renshaw.htm His email address is email@example.com
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