Lots of great space news lately, so I’ll try to point out a few highlights:
1. Leonid Meteor Shower. Tonight (Nov. 17/18) is the night for the annual Leonid meteor shower. As usual with meteor showers, the best viewing is in the predawn hours, though if you are at a dark enough site, you should be able to see a few meteors at most any time of night. For details on how to watch and what you can expect to see, I suggest reading the Leonid 2014 information at the EarthSky site.
2. Interstellar (movie). Have you seen the new movie yet? I really enjoyed it, and it’s got some great science in it too. I’ve posted a “science review” of the movie in which I discuss what’s scientifically real, what’s scientifically speculative, and what’s scientifically not real on my Huffington Post blog page. I also discuss the ages at which I think it makes sense to take children to the movie. You may understand the movie better if you read my review before seeing it (I tried to avoid spoilers). (Note: There’s also a great interview with Kip Thorne, the scientist behind the movie, in the Wall Street Journal.)
3. Rosetta lands on a comet! As many of you know, my favorite quotation is this one:
Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe. — H.G. Wells (1920)
If you read the news, it’s often hard not to think that “catastrophe” is winning the race. But this past week, humanity landed on a comet — providing a great of example of what human beings can do when we focus on the “education” side and use our brain power for the positive. The best source of images and other information about the mission can be found at the European Space Agency web site for the Rosetta spacecraft. Wikipedia also has a nice entry about the mission. Meanwhile, for those of you wondering why we should care, here’s a brief Q&A:
Q: What is a comet? A: A comet is a chunk of ice and rock that orbits the Sun. Comets are actually very similar to asteroids, expect asteroids don’t have much ice.
Q: Why are comets and asteroids important? A: The solar system formed about 4 ½ billion years ago from a great cloud of interstellar gas and dust. As the cloud contracted under its own gravity, it flattened into a spinning disk and solid pieces of material began to condense from the gas, much like snow flakes in Earth’s clouds. These particles grew larger with time, so that the early solar system was essentially filled with boulders that look like what we now call asteroids and icy comets. Many of boulders continued to grow larger (thanks to gravity), and a few of them ultimately grew into the eight planets. As they grew in size, the planets swept up most of the remaining boulders from the regions of their orbits. However, in between these regions, some of the boulders never became a part of the planets, and those that still exist today are the asteroids and comets.
Q: Why would we want to visit a comet? A: As above, comets essentially represent chunks of material that formed in the very early history of the solar system and never became part of a planet. In that sense, a sample of a comet is essentially a sample of the early material that formed in the solar system, which means that comets can shed light on what the solar system was like some 4 ½ billion years ago.
Q: Is the mission over now? A: No! The Rosetta spacecraft actually has two parts — the lander named Philae and the main spacecraft that is now orbiting the comet. The lander’s initial mission has been completed, and scientists are unsure whether its batteries will recharge enough to allow further scientific work. But the main spacecraft is fully operational and will continue to fly with Rosetta as the comet approaches the Sun. So watch for lots more exciting news from this mission, which will likely continue to collect scientific data until at least the end of 2015.
4. This is not an artist’s conception! Check out this amazing picture. As discussed above, planets sweep up material as they form in a spinning, disk-shaped cloud of gas. The new image from ALMA appears to show gaps created as planets form in the disk of gas. Artist conceptions have shown this idea for decades, but this picture is real. Truly amazing, and another great example of what we are capable of when we focus on education and doing positive things with our brain power. Note: ALMA observes what astronomers call “millimeter/submillimeter” light, which is essentially a form of radio-wave light (more technically, light with wavelengths of tenths of a millimeter to a few millimeters). We cannot see this light with our eyes, but it can be observed with specialized telescopes that look much like ordinary radio telescopes. You can find more information on the ALMA web site.
5. MAVEN and Comet Siding Spring: Another exciting space news story is the MAVEN mission (at Mars) getting an opportunity to study a comet that made a close pass by Mars, showing the planet with meteors. Nick Schneider (a co-author on The Cosmic Perspective series) made the front section of the New York Times with this story.
6. Titan’s lakes. As you may know, Saturn’s moon Titan is an amazing world with lakes of liquid methane and ethane. The Cassini mission recently obtained new images and measurements of these lakes. You can learn more by searching “Titan lakes” in the news, but here’s a nice Space.com article to start with.
7. The 2014 SET Awards. This past week, I had the privilege of attending Hollywood’s awards for TV and movies that do a good job promoting science, engineering, and technology education; copies of my children’s books were provided to award winners. I’ve also attached the program page for Story Time From Space, which will give you more information about the program.
8. New videos: For those who are interested:
- The USA Science Festival presentation with Astronaut Alvin Drew and myself is now posted. Click here for Alvin’s portion, and here for my portion of our joint presentation.
- The Teachercast web site recently interviewed me about Story Time From Space and other topics: http://teachercast.mediacore.tv/media/big-kid-science-teachercast-podcast-110.
- I had two recent guest appearances on George Noory’s “Beyond Belief” web TV show. You can find shortpreviews and links to the full shows on my blog page here.
9. On Teaching Science. Please check out my new book on teaching, suitable both for teachers and the general public. Note that I am also available to do talks/workshops based on the book. This fall, for example, I’ve presened on this topic at USC, UCLA, Michigan, San Diego State, and CUNY-Lehman. E-mail me if you are interested in a visit…