Programs 271-300





271-Race to Mars


Published PRX July 21, 2016
Recorded July 8, 2016

The red planet may soon need air traffic control.  In the next few years China, Europe, India, Japan, United Arab Emirates, United States, and SpaceX  are all operating Martian spacecraft or planning to send robotic explorers to Mars. 

Top priority is the discovery of home grown Martian microbes which would revolutionize our knowledge of how life happens and works.   The United States's NASA Curiosity Rover has been revealing details of the Martian surface for several years but has yet to find evidence for past or current living organisms.  In 2020 it will be joined by a new more sophisticated NASA Mars Rover, a European Rover, and perhaps a Chinese Rover.  

NASA and the private  SpaceX  company have both announced plans to eventually send humans to Mars.  SpaceX hopes to lead the race by sending one of it's robotic Red Dragon modules to Mars in 2018.  This vehicle has about the same internal volume as an SUV and would not be a possible way for astronauts to travel to Mars.  However, by 2022, this first step could enable sample and return missions to Mars.  Such efforts would bring the power of trained personnel using the best laboratories on Earth to study Martian samples for evidence of microbial life. Serious scientific and economic studies are being created to create a mission during which the Red Dragon would pick up samples collected by the NASA 2020 Rover and return them to Earth.  This mission would cost less than 1% of what the US spends on it's military programs each year and would likely have benefits which are beyond our current imaginations.

For Travelers in the Night this is Dr. Al Grauer.
Go to travelersinthenight.org program 271 for more information.
© 2016 A. D. Grauer and ℗ 2016 A. D. Grauer


272-Big Eye

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Published PRX July 21, 2016
Recorded July 8, 2016

On a mountain top in the foothills of the Andes in northern Chile a new kind  telescope,  the LSST,  is  under construction. It's unique design allows it to image an area of the sky 40 times the size of the full moon and thus record the entire sky twice a week. In 30 seconds the LSST can spot objects 10 million times fainter than we can see with our eyes.  It will discover objects which change in brightness and position to enable astronomers to study dark energy, weird stars, Earth approaching objects, and other fascinating time dependent events in the Universe.

The US Congress has mandated that NASA find  90%  of the Potentially Hazardous Asteroids, larger than 460 feet in diameter, which could pose a threat to planet Earth.   So far my team, the Catalina Sky Survey, the Pan-STARRS group in Hawaii, and the rest of the asteroid hunting community have only been able to discover about 25% of them.  Recently Dr. Tommy Grav of the Planetary Science Institute headed a team which analyzed the efficiency of  the LSST in discovering dangerous asteroids.  The results, published in The Astronomical Journal, suggest that the LSST will improve our discovery fraction of these dangerous objects from the current figure of 25% to about 60%.  They also found that about a quarter of dangerous asteroids are so dark that they are currently being mis-classified as being to small to worry about.  Bottom line is that even if LSST works as designed there will still be millions of dangerous asteroids out there for asteroid hunters to discover. 

For Travelers in the Night this is Dr. Al Grauer.
Go to travelersinthenight.org program 272 for more information.

© 2016 A. D. Grauer and ℗ 2016 A. D. Grauer


273-Hunt for Planet 9

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Published PRX July 28, 2016
Recorded July 8, 2016

Evidence continues to mount that there is an unseen body, Planet 9, orbiting far from our Sun.  Ideas of where to look for it are being guided by it's gravitational influence on objects in the distant region of our solar system called the Kuiper Belt.

Dr. Renu Malhotra of the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and her collaborators have found that a hypothetical Planet 9 would explain the the curious relationship between the orbits of the four longest period Kuiper Belt objects.  These researchers calculations suggest that Planet 9 could have a mass more than ten times that of Earth, a 17,000 year orbit, and a path that takes it from several hundred to more than thousand times the Earth's distance from the Sun.   Dr. Malhotra's work as well as that of Dr. Mike Brown and Dr. Konstantin Batygin of Caltech suggest the places to look are where Planet 9's orbit takes it furthest from the Sun.  Unfortunately, at this position, more than a thousand times the Earth's distance from the Sun, the scant light it reflects,  makes it exceedingly faint in our telescopes.

On a different tack, Dr. Nicolas Cowan of McGill University in Canada and his collaborators point out that at a temperature 30-50 degrees Kelvin Planet 9 is warm compared to the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation from the Big Bang which is only 3 degrees Kelvin.  They suggest that Planet 9 should be detectable by the five  experiments which are mapping signals from beginning of the Universe.  The faint thermal glow from Planet 9, measured in this way, will give us new clues about the inner workings of the giant planets. 

For Travelers in the Night this is Dr. Al Grauer.
Go to travelersinthenight.org program 273 for more information.
© 2016 A. D. Grauer and ℗ 2016 A. D. Grauer


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274-New Horizons Continues

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Published PRX July 28, 2016
Recorded July 8, 2016
 
The  NASA New Horizons spacecraft obtained intriguing images and data during it's trip through the Pluto system which will keep planetary scientists busy for years to come.  Now the New Horizons has it's sights set on an object, a billion miles past Pluto, which is called 2014 MU69.  It is too faint for all but the most powerful telescopes which is why the Hubble Space Telescope was systematically used to discover it.

2014 MU69 orbits the Sun every 293 years on a nearly circular path in the ecliptic which seems to have been unperturbed by other objects.  Currently the NASA New Horizons Spacecraft is on a trajectory which will come within 1,900 miles of this distant world on December 31,  2018 or 1 January 2019 when both are in the constellation of Sagittarius. 

Even though 2014 MU69 is out near Pluto it is very different from the famous dwarf planet.  At 13 to 25 miles in diameter it is  50-100 times smaller and 500,000 times less massive than Pluto.  It may have an atmosphere and even moons. On the other hand 2014 MU69 is a thousand times more massive than the comet which the Rosetta landed on.  This intermediate sized object will give scientists the opportunity to study 4 billion year old material which has been stored in the best deep freeze that exists.  What it has to say about the primitive material which formed out solar system will be worth the trip.

For Travelers in the Night this is Dr. Al Grauer.
Go to travelersinthenight.org program 274 for more information.
© 2016 A. D. Grauer and ℗ 2016 A. D. Grauer


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275-No Place Like Home

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Published PRX August 5, 2016
Recorded July 31, 2016

Robotic spacecraft from Earth have been traveling around the solar system for decades. What they have found is that there may be a few places on which the toughest terrestrial life forms could exist but nowhere that you could survive without a space suit. A striking by product of these missions are the photographs of our home planet that these robots have sent back to Earth.

     Astronomers are finding thousands of planets orbiting distant stars, however, our home, the Earth, is so far unique in the cosmos. It is situated in the middle of the habitable zone around our Sun where temperatures  suitable for life as we know it exist. Not all planets are so fortunate. Recently published research indicates that if the Earth were near the outer edge of our Sun's habitable zone the climate would feature prolonged ice ages with a few warm periods in-between during which complex life could flourish.   If the Earth were closer to the Sun it would likely to be too hot for life on most of it surface. 

     On Earth the human use of fossil fuel is changing the climate which will make our lives difficult in ways we are just learning to appreciate.   Prepare yourself for more violent storms with extremely dry periods in between. You may arrive at your favorite beach to find it under water. Pesticide use threatens the bee population without which agriculture's ability to feed us comes into serious question. Clean air, water, and healthy food to eat can not to be taken for granted.

     Wake up.  Humans can not  trash this planet and plan to move on. There is no other place like home.

For Travelers in the Night this is Dr. Al Grauer.
Go to travelersinthenight.org program 275 for more information.
© 2016 A. D. Grauer and ℗ 2016 A. D. Grauer


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276-Big 3

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Published PRX August 5, 2016
Recorded July 31, 2016

During a 6 night observing run with the 60 inch telescope on Mt. Lemmon, Arizona, my Catalina Sky Survey teammate Carson Fuls discovered three new Potentially Hazardous Asteroids.   They range in size from 600 to 1500 feet in diameter.  Fortunately, none of them comes closer than about 14 times the Moon's distance from us.

A recent study by Dr. Pasquale Tricarico of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona estimates that asteroid hunters have discovered approximately one third of the large potentially dangerous asteroids which are likely to exist.  His study also predicts that there are approximately 400,000 Earth approaching objects larger than an SUV.  A small object like one of these enters our atmosphere every few years, disintegrates at about 3 times the height that airliners fly, and sometimes produce meteorites that we can find on the ground.  Very rarely one of them explodes over a populated area as was the case in Chelyabinsk, Russia in 2013 where nearly 1,500 people were injured by flying glass and other debris.  Soon asteroid hunters hope to be able to find small Chelyabinsk sized impactors  before they enter our atmosphere so as to be able to warn people in the affected area to stay away from doors and windows.  Humans still have a lot to learn. For example if celestial visitors are darker and thus reflect less sunlight than what we currently suspect shorter warning times for asteroids of various sizes will be the results.

For Travelers in the Night this is Dr. Al Grauer.
Go to travelersinthenight.org program 276 for more information.
© 2016 A. D. Grauer and ℗ 2016 A. D. Grauer



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277-Old Girl

Published PRX August 13 , 2016
Recorded August 1, 2016

Imagine a telescope old enough for Senior Citizen discounts, which has traveled between mountains, and started life with a metal mirror measuring one thing at time being equipped with a camera with 100 million pixels. This is the story of the "old girl", the 60 inch Catalina Sky Survey telescope on Mt. Lemmon, Arizona.

My teammate, Catalina Sky Survey, Senior Scientist Steve Larson has accompanied the 60 inch on much of it's odyssey, built many of it's instruments,  and is the camera building genius behind the new 100 million pixel camera. 

It is thought provoking to reflect on the rapid advance in human science and technology.  When I first started using the already old 60 inch telescope in 1988 it had no computer operating it and we moved it around the sky by hand. Originally the "old girl's" instruments measured one object at a time.  My advance was to build an instrument which measured three objects simultaneously while automatically guiding the telescope on a nearby star. It allowed me to enjoy the benefits of a "warm room" during the cold winter nights. Today the old girls new camera is able to accurately measure the brightness and position of 300,000 objects per image.  In one night the 60 inch moves around the sky more and obtains more data than it did in decades of its previous life.  

Amazingly, equipped with modern electronics and computers the "old girl's" ancient frame now carries 1,300 pounds more than it did in it's early years.  All of this new gear has the "old girl" poised to continue to be a world leader in the discovery of Earth approaching objects.

For Travelers in the Night this is Dr. Al Grauer.
Go to travelersinthenight.org program 277 for more information.
© 2016 A. D. Grauer and ℗ 2016 A. D. Grauer



278-Nope

Published PRX August 13 , 2016
Recorded August 1, 2016

This is the story of the big one that got away. 

While observing with the 60 inch telescope on Mount Lemmon in Arizona I came across a fast moving point of light in night sky.  Three nights later my Catalina Sky Survey teammate Greg Leonard took additional data on this previously unknown object. The Minor Planet Center used our observations to calculate an orbit and give the object the name 2016 NA39.   Based on these calculations an electronic circular was published stating that this object is a 3,300 foot diameter Potentially Hazardous Asteroid which orbits the Sun once every 1.75 years. This analysis suggested 2016 NA39 to be nearly a 1 kilometer sized Earth approaching object.  NASA is particularly interested in kilometer or larger objects since the impact of one of them could produce global climate change which at the least would produce a very negative effects on human agriculture.   Typically only a few of these relatively large Earth approachers are discovered each year. Fortunately or unfortunately depending on your point of view,  further analysis of the short orbital arc revealed that 2016 NA39 is not an Earth approacher at all but rather it is a mile diameter outer main belt asteroid traveling far from us.

2016 NA 39 illustrates the problem that there are a number of possible orbits which may fit a short arc of an object in the night sky.  There may be scores of kilometer sized objects out there but 2016 NA39 is not one of them.

For Travelers in the Night this is Dr. Al Grauer.
Go to travelersinthenight.org program 278 for more information.
© 2016 A. D. Grauer and ℗ 2016 A. D. Grauer


279-Hottest

Published PRX August 18 , 2016
Recorded August 1, 2016


Scientists at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York are using ground based observations and satellite data to measure global temperatures and the distribution of Arctic sea ice.  What they have discovered deserves your attention. The first six months of 2016 is the warmest such period since modern records started in 1880.  The Earth is 1.3 degrees Celsius or 2.4 degrees Fahrenheit warmer now than it was in the latter part of the nineteenth century.  Even though some of this warming is due in part to the current El Nino, this change is alarming since this rise is 65% of the 2010 internationally agreed limit.  

The effects of this warming stand out in aircraft and satellite data.  The Arctic sea ice now covers 40% less area than it did in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The melt ponds that form on the sea ice absorb more sunlight than ice and serve to accelerate the warming process.

The warming that is happening is having a variety of consequences. In the American midwest and northeast extreme heat, heavy rain storms, and flooding will impact agriculture, forestry, infrastructure, and air as well as water quality.  In the southwest increased heat, insect outbreaks, and declining water supplies will increase the possibility of wild fires and other threats.  Costal regions regions are experiencing sea level rises and storm surges which effect ports, tourism, and the fishing industry.  Alaska has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the country and has witnessed sea ice retreating, glaciers receding, and permafrost melting. 

Change is in the wind.

For Travelers in the Night this is Dr. Al Grauer.
Go to travelersinthenight.org program 279 for more information.
© 2016 A. D. Grauer and ℗ 2016 A. D. Grauer


280-Ice Volcanoes


Published PRX August 18 , 2016
Recorded August 1, 2016

On Earth volcanos produce molten rock, gas, dust, and sulfuric acid which can quickly and violently change the landscape.  On other celestial bodies volcanos can be quite different but still make dramatic changes.  

The NASA Dawn spacecraft visited the two largest bodies in the asteroid belt, Vesta and Ceres.  Vesta, Dawn's first stop, is a heavily cratered rocky object with an Arizona length diameter. It is very nearly spherical except for a massive crater which dominates Vesta's south polar region.  To put this in perspective, if the Earth had a crater sized proportionally to Vesta's missing chunk, it would fill the Pacific ocean.

Dawn's second stop, Ceres, has a diameter which would allow it to cover most of Texas. This tiny world is covered with many small relatively young craters with none approaching the size of those Dawn found on Vesta.  Additionally researchers have found salts on Ceres's exterior which appear to have been brought there by water from an ocean of liquid water below it's surface.  These observations are consistent with the idea that ice volcanos on Ceres could have produced flows which buried the large pre-existing craters on it's surface.  Scientists have spotted icy plumes coming from below the surface of Saturn's moon Enceladus but have yet to witness such events on Ceres.  Even so there is significant evidence which points to the possibility of a liquid water ocean layer below Ceres' icy crust which could provide an environment suitable for microorganisms.  

For Travelers in the Night this is Dr. Al Grauer.

Go to travelersinthenight.org program 280 for more information.

© 2016 A. D. Grauer and ℗ 2016 A. D. Grauer


281-Starlight Walking

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Published PRX August 27 , 2016
Recorded August 26, 2016

We don't know much about our Ethiopian ancestor Lucy who walked the Earth some 3 million years ago, however, it is likely that she made her way around at night but the light of the stars, air glow, and the Moon. In modern humans, the Rod receptors in our eyes become amazingly sensitive when they are not exposed to bright light for some 30 to 45 minutes. At this point things look black and white even though your eye's maximum sensitivity is close to the color of the green light given off by atmospheric night airglow. 

In the space of a human lifetime most people have lost the opportunity to be dark adapted under a clear, natural, night sky. My wife Annie and I have become reacquainted with the wonders of the natural night sky at the Cosmic Campground International Dark Sky Sanctuary. During a recent star party there Annie was visiting with a family from a nearby city when a six year old remarked to his mother "I can see you". It was the first time that he had seen her by starlight. All of us were able to move around without the aid of artificial lighting by using the light of stars, the air glow, planets, clusters of stars, and the magnificent Milky Way. What a concept. 

You can find a spot to experience the natural night sky by visiting a dark sky place which you can locate on the International Dark Sky Association's website. Pick a nice clear night when it is not too cold. Equip your flashlight with a red cellophane filter attached with a rubber band.  Your visit will allow you to experience the age old sense of wonder which happens when a human looks into deep space and thinks about what might be out there.

For Travelers in the Night this is Dr. Al Grauer.
Go to travelersinthenight.org program 281 for more information.
© 2016 A. D. Grauer and ℗ 2016 A. D. Grauer


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282-Biggest Rocket

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Published PRX August 27 , 2016
Recorded August 26, 2016

NASA's Saturn V which took humans to the Moon produced powerful sound waves of low to medium frequencies which shook buildings and were felt as well as heard by launch observers more than 5 miles away.  Now it's more powerful replacement is under development.  A crucial component of it is the RS-25 rocket engine which was used in 135 successful Space Shuttle Missions.  Recently an improved RS-25 rocket motor was auditioned for it's new job as part of the biggest rocket ever.  

Holding enough liquid oxygen and hydrogen to fill 63 large tanker trucks NASA's new Space Launch System Core Stage is 212 feet tall and is 27.6 feet in dimeter.  It's four mighty RS-25 engines will generate 2 million pounds of thrust. With the assistance of two solid fuel external booster rockets, this mammoth first stage is really fast. It is designed to be going 23 times the speed of sound which is more than 17,000 miles per hour in only eight and a half minutes.  

In 2018 the first flight of the Space Launch System is scheduled to  send an unmanned Orion capsule on trip around the Moon. After that this new biggest rocket ever will be used to launch crews of up to four astronauts with the Orion spacecraft to various deep space locations.  The Space Launch System will also enable large payloads for robotic scientific missions to Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and other points in our solar system.  

For Travelers in the Night this is Dr. Al Grauer.
Go to travelersinthenight.org program 282 for more information.
© 2016 A. D. Grauer and ℗ 2016 A. D. Grauer

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283-Micro-Astronomy


Published PRX September 1 , 2016
Recorded August 26, 2016

The history of our spot in the Universe is written in the composition of meteorites and other samples of materials we have obtained from space.  Even the smallest speck has a story to tell.

Recently Dr. Tom Zega and his collaborators analyzed a single crystal of the mineral magnetite obtained from a meteorite which was found on the LaPaz Icefield in Antarctica.  This tiny grain of material measuring less than 1% of the diameter of the average human hair was selected with an ion beam scalpel and imaged with high powered electron microscopes.  The oxygen in it's molecules has a mixture of isotopes different from what we find on Earth. It is likely that these oxygen atoms were ejected in the solar wind of a star having about twice the mass of the sun. They appear to have combined with iron in the dust cloud surrounding this ancient star to form a crystal of magnetite.   This tiny spec of material was included in the cloud of gas and dust which became our solar system some 4.5 billion years ago.

Currently Dr. Zega and his collaborators are creating a facility in the basement of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory building at the University of Arizona in Tucson.  The instruments they are installing are powerful enough to image single atoms.  They will use them to analyze samples of the asteroid Bennu obtained by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft.    What these researchers find written in the composition and arrangement of atoms and molecules will have much to say about the origins of planet Earth and the life we find here.

For Travelers in the Night this is Dr. Al Grauer.
Go to travelersinthenight.org program 283 for more information.
© 2016 A. D. Grauer and ℗ 2016 A. D. Grauer


284-Dark Trails


Published PRX September 1 , 2016
Recorded August 26, 2016

A faint shooting star or meteor streaking across the sky is produced when a tiny bit of rock or dust enters the Earth's atmosphere and burns up some 60 miles above us.  Sometimes one is very bright and can be seen in the daytime.  If it is as bright as the planet Venus it is called a fireball.  Like it's dimmer cousin the fireball stops being visible to the human eye sometimes after it breaks into pieces.    

NASA scientist Dr. Marc Fries and his collaborators have used Doppler Weather Radar to track twenty meteor's dark trails through the sky.  In the past year or so they have used this technique to direct searchers on the ground to the probable location of freshly fallen meteorites. In three instances a total of two and a half pounds of freshly fallen meteorites were discovered near Creston, CA, Osceola, FL, and Mount Blanco, TX. In four other cases RADAR indicated the likelihood of meteorites near Locust Grove, CA, Rainsburg, PA, Black Earth, WI, and in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida but so far no meteorites from these falls have been found.  Often vegetation, rough terrain, and the presence of terrestrial rocks make it difficult to find space rocks.

When a meteorite is shown to originate from a fireball which has been detected by NASA's fireball network the data are used to calculate the object's path through space before it entered the Earth's atmosphere.  This analysis reveals the part of the solar system that it came from and thus provides detailed information about the composition of an asteroid or comet from distant region of our solar system.  

For Travelers in the Night this is Dr. Al Grauer.
Go to travelersinthenight.org program 284 for more information.
© 2016 A. D. Grauer and ℗ 2016 A. D. Grauer


285-Mars Impactors


Published PRX September 8 , 2016
Recorded August 26, 2016

In 2015 the Earth was struck by at least 43 meteoroids which created bright fireballs.   Their arrival does not seem to be correlated with the position of the Earth in it's orbit about the Sun.

Overall a given piece of ground on Mars is several times more likely to be hit by a space rock than is a similar sized area on Earth.  Recently, Youngmin JeongAhn and Dr. Renu Malhotra of the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory published a paper reporting their analysis of the current impact rate of small objects onto Mars.  The red planet's very elliptical orbit is aligned with the known Mars crossing asteroids and carries it nearer the main asteroid belt when it is farthest from the Sun.  JeongAhn and Malhotra have determined that these factors make the chance of Mars being hit by a half mile sized asteroid to be three times greater when it is it's furtherest from the Sun than it is at the other extreme of it's orbit.  They also find that the impact rate of smaller 3 foot diameter objects, which cause fireballs on Earth, is likely to change between 3 to 15 times as Mars orbits the Sun.   There could be as few as 15 or as many as 186 new impact craters every Martian year. This estimate will be refined as the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter continues to discover fresh craters on the surface of the red planet.

All of this is causing me to wonder if in the future the Martian tourist industry will bring visitors to view super meteor storms which occur each year when Mars is furtherest from the Sun.

For Travelers in the Night this is Dr. Al Grauer.
Go to travelersinthenight.org program 285 for more information.
© 2016 A. D. Grauer and ℗ 2016 A. D. Grauer


286-Neighboring World

Published PRX September 8 , 2016
Recorded August 26, 2016

Astronomers at the European Southern Observatory in Chile have discovered a rocky Earth like planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, the star nearest to our Sun.  The planet named Proxima b is about 1.3 times more massive than Earth, orbits it's dim red star every 11 days, and may always keep the same side towards it's sun. Attention grabbing is the fact that Proxima b is at the right distance from it's sun to allow for liquid water on it's surface.

Just as is the case with the Earth, the key to Proxima b's potential as an abode for life lies in the density and composition of it's atmosphere if it has one. A complication is that Proxima b receives 60 times more high energy radiation than Earth.  

Current evidence does not allow scientists to determine if Proxima b has lost its atmosphere and is thus like our moon or if it has been able to hold on to most of it's atmosphere and thus currently has liquid water on its surface.  To probe this mystery scientists from Spain, Belgium, France, Germany, UK, and the USA analyzed possible atmospheres and climates on Proxima b.  Their results suggests that liquid water may only be present on the sunniest portions of the planet either on the side of the planet facing it's star or in a temperate zone along its equator.

The next generation of super-sized telescopes will give astronomers the ability to measure the thickness and composition of Proxima b's atmosphere and oceans if they exist.    Proxima b is tantalizing place since the Physics of the Universe allows us study it from a far and perhaps even send a super light robotic probe to it in the not too distant future.

For Travelers in the Night this is Dr. Al Grauer.
Go to travelersinthenight.org program 286 for more information.
© 2016 A. D. Grauer and ℗ 2016 A. D. Grauer


287-Heavenly Palace

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Published PRX September 16 , 2016
Recorded September 15, 2016

China is challenging America's historical preeminence in space exploration. Get ready for a Chinese robotic landing on the far side of the moon as well as a lunar sample and return mission. Mars is the destination for an entirely Chinese mission in 2020.

While the United States must hire the use of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to send astronauts to the International Space Station, China has its own very active manned space program. The Tiangong-1 or Heavenly Palace, the Chinese space laboratory was launched in 2011 and visited by both male and female astronauts before being abandoned after it's planned two year lifetime. In 2016 it is being replaced by a new Heavenly Palace,Tiangong-2. It will be visited on a 30 day mission by astronauts flying in a Shenzhou-11 spaceship. The new Heavenly Palace has email, television program viewing, and other creature comforts. These missions are being used to develop the technology to support China's permanent 60 ton space station which is scheduled to be started in 2018 and completed in 2022. A manned lunar landing leading to a space colony on the moon is next on Beijing's agenda.

China's secret to success is in the use of the basic concepts of rocket design to produce relatively simple reliable space launch vehicles. From 2012 to 2015 this strategy produced 68 successful Chinese space launches compared to the USA's 72. At some point in the future, America may be still trying to get to humans to Mars while China is operating a robust lunar colony. 

For Travelers in the Night this is Dr. Al Grauer.
Go to travelersinthenight.org program 287 for more information.
© 2016 A. D. Grauer and ℗ 2016 A. D. Grauer


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288-Coming Out Of Monsoon

Published PRX September 16 , 2016
Recorded September 15, 2016

In the southwest, the life giving monsoon rains occur in July and August, divide the observing year into two halves, and give asteroid hunters a chance to do major equipment maintenance and upgrades.  My Catalina Sky Survey teammates Richard Kowalski and Rose Matheny started the new observing season after the monsoon weather began to taper off using our 60 inch telescope on Mt. Lemmon and 30 inch Schmidt telescope on Mt. Bigelow respectively.  Richard and Rose were given a three night clear break in the weather during which they were able to discover a dozen new Earth approaching asteroids.  

The largest is 2016 QJ44.  It is a Potentially Hazardous Asteroid, approximately 1200 feet in diameter.   Not to worry.  It never comes closer than 10 times the Moon's distance from us.  Two others are about 400 feet in dimeter but never get very close to planet Earth.  The closest approaching asteroid in this group of twelve is 2016 QL44.  It is about 115 feet in diameter, orbits the Sun every two and a half years, and can come as close as three and a half the Moon's distance from us.

My team the Catalina Sky Survey is a part of NASA's Near Earth Object Program. We use three telescopes, 24 nights per month, in the Catalina mountains north of Tucson, Arizona to search the night sky for Earth approaching objects. 

For Travelers in the Night this is Dr. Al Grauer.
Go to travelersinthenight.org program 288 for more information.
© 2016 A. D. Grauer and ℗ 2016 A. D. Grauer


289-Strange Comet

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Published PRX September 22 , 2016
Recorded September 15, 2016


C/2016 Q4 (Kowalski) is my Catalina Sky Survey teammate Richard Kowalski's 14th comet discovery. It orbits the Sun once every 68 years on a cold path between Saturn and Neptune. 

Kowalski's new comet has an orbit and likely other characteristics similar to the minor planet/comet Chiron. At perhaps 150 miles in diameter Chiron is a strange object. It is the 6th object in the solar system which has rings. Besides the gas giants Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune only the remote asteroid Chariklo and Chiron have rings. When it was first discovered in 1977 Chiron was classified as a minor planet. In 1988 Astronomers were surprised to observe Chiron brightening by more than 75% since asteroids don't usually behave like this. A year later Chiron was observed to have a gas cloud or coma surrounding it. The surprises continued when Chiron's ring system was discovered in 1993. When it's ring system is face on it reflects more light than when they are edge on which accounts for Chiron's brightness variations.

As a Chiron type object Kowalski's discovery has the characteristics of both an asteroid and a comet.  We don't know if it has rings or moons.

As asteroid hunters, every night, we are treated to a tour of the Universe as we view the images of millions of stars and other objects in search of Earth approaching asteroids. What will we come up with next?

For Travelers in the Night this is Dr. Al Grauer.
Go to travelersinthenight.org program 289 for more information.
© 2016 A. D. Grauer and ℗ 2016 A. D. Grauer


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290-Screaming Aten

Published PRX September 22 , 2016
Recorded September 15, 2016

I knew from the short regularly space streaks on the four images I had just obtained with the Catalina Sky Survey's 60 inch on Mount Lemmon, Arizona, I was looking at the path of an Earth approaching object.  Closer scrutiny revealed this previously unknown object to be traveling across the sky at an amazing rate of 17 full moon diameters per day.  For the next 38 hours this space rock was observed by telescopes in Arizona, Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, and Illinois. However, it wasn't until my Catalina Sky Survey teammate Rose Matheny tracked it two nights later that the Minor Planet Center was able to give it the name 2016 RT and calculate it's orbit around the Sun.  Then the puzzlement began.  The NASA/JPL Near Earth Object website classified 2016 RT as an Aten.  An Aten Earth approaching asteroid is one that spends most of its time inside the Earth's orbit.  Usually, when an Aten passes us or we pass it the situation is like one vehicle passing the other when both are going the same direction on a freeway.  This configuration makes for a slow relative speed between a typical Aten and the Earth.  Turns out, 2016 RT is an unusual Aten in that its orbit is inclined 38 degrees to the path of the Earth around the Sun.  It's high relative speed is caused by the fact that our paths intersect at a large angle making it similar to two vehicles coming together on intersecting highways.

For Travelers in the Night this is Dr. Al Grauer.
Go to travelersinthenight.org program 290 for more information.
© 2016 A. D. Grauer and ℗ 2016 A. D. Grauer


291-Rose Rules

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Published PRX September 29 , 2016
Recorded September 24, 2016

Anyone who thinks women can't do computers and science needs to meet my Catalina Sky Survey teammate Rose Matheny. On a recent 3 night observing run at the 60 inch telescope on Mt. Lemmon, Rose took over the world of asteroid hunting when she posted 82 new potentially Earth approaching objects on the Minor Planet Center's NEO Confirmation Page. For the next several days telescopes around the world obtained additional data on Rose's discoveries. When the dust settled 29 of Rose's discoveries were proved to be Earth approaching objects, 32 are other asteroids which don't come near enough our home planet to be interesting, and the rest need more data to figure out what they are. 

Interestingly four of Rose's discoveries can pass less than half of the Moon's distance from us. In fact two days after she discovered it one of them passed at about the distance of the communication satellites from our south pole. Fortunately they are all less than 60 feet in diameter and pose to threat to the residents of our planet. 

Two more of Rose's 29 discoveries are classified as Potentially Hazardous Asteroids. They are no threat to humanity in the foreseeable future, however, they are large enough and come near enough that asteroid hunters will continue to keep careful watch on them.

The 32 other asteroids that Rose discovered in her three night effort all have interesting orbits and may be the objects of further scientific research.

Perhaps one day humans will visit one of Roses's asteroid discoveries to use the water and metals they contain to sustain space colonies.

For Travelers in the Night this is Dr. Al Grauer.
Go to travelersinthenight.org program 291 for more information.

© 2016 A. D. Grauer and ℗ 2016 A. D. Grauer


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292-Disintegrating Comet

Published PRX September 29 , 2016
Recorded September 24, 2016

Comets are made up of organic materials and ices of various substance which are left over from the formation of our solar system 4.6 billion years ago.   When the gravity of a nearby star or other object changes one of these dirty snowball's orbit, its path can bring it into the inner solar system and thus near enough for the Sun to affect it and for us to study what is going on.

The nucleus of a typical comet is only a few miles in diameter and is made up of chunks of frozen materials and dust.  In ancient times the collision of comets with Earth are likely to have brought water and organic materials to our home planet.

It has been long suspected that comets are unstable and may leave trails of debris when they break up.  Recently the Hubble Space Telescope was able to capture images of a comet which is coming apart 67 million miles from  the Earth. The fascinating detailed pictures reveal the presence of twenty five pieces which are leaving the nucleus of the comet at the leisurely speed of a human on a stroll.  These observed comet fragments range from 65 to 200 feet in diameter and represent about 1/20 of the mass of parent comet nucleus. It is likely that sunlight has heated the comet producing rocket like jets of material which dislodge pieces of the nucleus.   In the process of ejecting these chunks this disintegrating comet is producing a trail of debris more than 3,000 miles long.  If in the very distant future the Earth's orbit were to carry it through such a dusty comet trail humans would be treated to a super-duper meteor storm. In the meantime Hubble's sharp eye sight allows us to view this cosmic event from a safe distance.

For Travelers in the Night this is Dr. Al Grauer.
Go to travelersinthenight.org program 292 for more information.  
© 2016 A. D. Grauer and ℗ 2016 A. D. Grauer



293-From Luna


Published PRX October 6 , 2016
Recorded September 24, 2016

More than 240 Lunar meteorites have been found in the Dhofar region of Oman, on the LaPaz Icefield of Antartica, and other locations on the Earth's surface.  These space traveling rocks were blasted from the Moon's surface by the impact of asteroids and comets which accelerated them to speeds greater than the lunar escape velocity of 1.5 miles per second. Subsequently these interplanetary travelers in the night orbited the Sun for an extended period of time before entering our atmosphere and falling to Earth. We know these meteorites are from the Moon because they contain mixtures of atoms which are found on the Moon but not in Earthly rocks. 

Recently, my Catalina Sky Survey teammates Alex Gibbs and Richard Kowalski discovered an Earth approaching asteroid which has a speed consistent with it having been ejected from the Moon by the impact of an asteroid or comet long ago.  Its name is 2016 RD34.  This small space rock is approximately 43 feet in diameter. It orbits the Sun once every 409 days on a path that currently can come to a bit less than 2 times the Moon's distance from us.  

When Alex first spotted it, 2016 RD34 was about 2.7 times the Moon's distance from him and was moving at a speed of less than 1 mile/second relative to planet Earth.  Compared to other Earth approaching objects this is a rather leisurely pace which is easily attainable by our rockets.   The only way to prove that it was blasted from the Moon is to obtain a sample which proves its chemical composition to be like other Moon rocks. 

For Travelers in the Night this is Dr. Al Grauer.
Go to travelersinthenight.org program 293 for more information.
© 2016 A. D. Grauer and ℗ 2016 A. D. Grauer


294-Dangereous Duo

Published PRX October 6 , 2016
Recorded September 24, 2016

Recently in the space of 28 hours my Catalina Sky Survey teammates Rose Matheny and Carson Fuls discovered two Potentially Hazardous Asteroids to add to the list of the more than 1700 which asteroid hunters have discovered.  Fortunately, none of the Potentially Hazardous Asteroids are currently on a collision course with planet Earth.  

The first of Rose and Carson's discoveries has been named 2016 RN1.  This large space rock is about 700 feet in diameter, orbits the Sun once every 1.5 years, and between 2016 AD and 2200 AD it will make 18 close approaches to Earth.

The second of Rose and Carson's potentially dangerous space rocks is 2016 RT1.  Its path is mostly inside the Earth's orbit and takes it around the Sun every 344 days.  This 450 diameter asteroid makes close approaches to both the Earth and Venus and is not a current threat to either planet.

The orbits of asteroids change over time due to the gravity of other objects as well as the relentless pressure of the Sun light on their surface.  Asteroid hunters keep special track of the more than 1700 Potentially Hazardous asteroids to make sure that their paths have not changed to make them a threat to planet Earth.  To that end my team the Catalina Sky Survey operates three telescopes in the Catalina Mountains north of Tucson, Arizona.  Our job is to discover potentially dangerous celestial neighbors as well as to keep track of the more than 500,000 known asteroids. 

For Travelers in the Night this is Dr. Al Grauer.
Go to travelersinthenight.org program 294 for more information.
© 2016 A. D. Grauer and ℗ 2016 A. D. Grauer




295-Close Passes

Published PRX October 14 , 2016
Recorded September 25, 2016

During a recent 3 night observing run my Catalina Sky Survey teammate Rose Matheny discovered 4 asteroids which can come to less than one half the Moon's distance from us. Interestingly one of them passed about 25,000 miles over the South Pole 2 days after Rose discovered it.  Rose's four close approaching asteroids are small ranging in size from 15 to 60 feet in diameter.  None of them are big enough to reach the Earth's surface and make a crater. However, the largest is about the size of the one whose air blast shock wave injured nearly 1500 people when it exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia in 2013 .

A space rock like one of the smaller of Rose's discoveries enters the Earth's atmosphere every few years, explodes at about three times the height airliners fly, and sometimes rains pieces on the ground for meteorite hunters to discover.  Most of the time a 3 to 10 foot diameter meteoroid enters our atmosphere over the ocean or during the day so you have to be lucky to witness the light show it produces. Very rarely humans see a rock fall from the sky and are able to locate some fragments of it which reach the ground. This process has been made easier by using Doppler Weather Radar to track the dark fragments from a meteor when it explodes high above the Earth.

Asteroid hunters are working hard to improve their equipment and software so as to be able to track small asteroids which are on a collision course with planet Earth.  Our goal is to be able to warn people to stay away from doors and windows should a small space rock be about to explode over a populated area. 

For Travelers in the Night this is Dr. Al Grauer.
Go to travelersinthenight.org program 295 for more information.
© 2016 A. D. Grauer and ℗ 2016 A. D. Grauer


296-Tilted History


Published PRX October 14 , 2016
Recorded September 25, 2016

Seasons are created by the fact that the Earth's axis of rotation is currently tilted 23 1/2 degrees relative to our path around the Sun. The slight out of roundness of the Earth's orbit combined with a 41,000 year cycle in its 3 degree axis of rotation wobble can cause the Earth's climate to change on very long time scales.  Turns out that these astronomical cycles are likely to be the drivers of where you are from and where you live.

Recently Dr. Axel Timmermann  and Dr. Tobias Fredrich from the University of Hawaii published an article which analyzed human migration over the past 125,000 years in the prestigious journal Nature.  These researchers used a series of computer models guided by archeological data and the location of human fossils to follow our ancestors as they migrated across planet Earth. They found that tiny bidirectional  waves of human migration happened every 20,000 years or so when the wobble in the tilt of Earth's axis of rotation opened up green corridors of plant life between Africia and the eastern Mediterranean as well as Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. This research indicates that Homo Sapiens arrived more or less simultaneously in China and Europe about 80 to 90 thousand years ago.  The human wave out of Africa that occurred 50,000 years ago apparently led to the eventual human occupation of the rest of the world.  Along the way human wanderers were helped by land bridges and corridors of plant life which were produced by small cyclic changes in the tilt of the Earth's axis of rotation.

For Travelers in the Night this is Dr. Al Grauer.
Go to travelersinthenight.org program 296 for more information.
© 2016 A. D. Grauer and ℗ 2016 A. D. Grauer

297-White Sky

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Published PRX October 20 , 2016
Recorded October 3, 2016

It is likely that millions of children will never have the opportunity to see the Milky Way or a meteor streaking across the night sky unless they experience a massive failure of the electrical distribution grid. No one hopes for such an event since it would have many potentially tragic consequences.

Humans have arrived at the situation where at night 80% of the world's population live under a white sky by a combination of thoughtlessness and a relatively cheap energy supply. The result is a massive waste of resources and money. In addition glare produced by poorly designed lighting causes accidents and does not deter crime.

Fortunately the International Dark Sky Association continues to advocate ways in which we can save money and protect the beauty of the natural night sky. Further, this organization , nicknamed the IDA, identifies and seeks to protect the remaining places on planet Earth where you can still experience and be inspired by the beauty of the Universe which surrounds you. The inventory of International Dark Sky Places on the darksky.org website will help you to locate a place where you can experience the mysteries of the natural night sky. 

From the time your ancestors left Africa 50,000 years ago until relatively recently every human was able to look into the night sky and wonder what is out there. Take a star chart, a flashlight with a red filter wrap attached by a rubber band, and visit a place where you can see what you have been missing.  Learn the names of some of the bright stars which you will then recognize each year when they appear as the Earth Travels about the Sun.

For Travelers in the Night this is Dr. Al Grauer.
Go to travelersinthenight.org program 297 for more information.
© 2016 A. D. Grauer and ℗ 2016 A. D. Grauer


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298-Rosetta

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Published PRX October 20 , 2016
Recorded October 3, 2016

The Rosetta Spacecraft left planet Earth in 2004.    During its twelve year lifetime this robotic emissary traveled 5 billion miles on 6 trips around the Sun, flew by Earth three times, visited Mars, and cruised by two asteroids.  Rosetta needed to take such a long path to use the gravity of Earth and Mars to accelerate it to a speed which would allow it to rendezvous with a comet.  Upon arrival, Rosetta successfully spent two years studying the comet at close range and sent a probe to it's surface.  It's life ended when its human masters put it on a collision course with Comet 67P's nucleus.

Before the Rosetta space mission humans had no idea of what a comet nucleus looked like or the fact that a comet nucleus is a tiny world with its own set of geological processes which shape it.  

Astronomers have long theorized that comets brought water and organic materials to a dry sterile Earth billions of years ago.  Rosetta's lander found water, molecular oxygen, and nitrogen streaming from pours in the comet's nucleus.

The 16 different types of organic molecules which Rosetta measured included amino acid glycine which is an important component  of DNA and cell membranes.  The water Rosetta found has left us with additional questions since the isotopes of hydrogen it contains are in different proportions to what is in the water on Earth.  This means that comets like 67P could not have brought water to Earth and we will need to look elsewhere for the source of our world's unique oceans.

Even though the Rosetta spacecraft no longer transmits data its legacy will continue for decades to come.

For Travelers in the Night this is Dr. Al Grauer.
Go to travelersinthenight.org program 298 for more information.
© 2016 A. D. Grauer and ℗ 2016 A. D. Grauer

299-Sporadic Geysers

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Published PRX October 27 , 2016
Recorded October 25, 2016

Using a small telescope or a set of binoculars you can see Europa for yourself as a small moving point of light circling the giant planet Jupiter.   More than 400 years after Galileo Galilei discovered this seemingly small dead world the Hubble Space Telescope spotted geysers erupting from its south polar regions. Recently, over a 15 month period, the Hubble was able to observe 10 transits of Europa across the face of Jupiter. On three such occasions plumes were seen to be erupting from this small moon.   

The interior of Europa is warmed as it is flexed by the gravity of Jupiter as it travels around the giant planet once every three and a half days.  Several lines of evidence have led astronomers to believe that Europa has a 60 mile deep salty ocean of liquid water in contact with a warm rocky mineral rich interior.  We know that the environment around hydrothermal vents on Earth's ocean floor abounds with a diversity of living organisms. On Europa, this potential habit for alien life is protected from the harsh vacuum of space by a 6 to 19 mile thick global ice sheet which at a temperature of -260 degrees F is as hard as granite.   The exciting discovery of Europa's geysers will allow an orbiting laboratory to obtain a sample of the subsurface oceans.

Mars, Europa, Enceladus, Ganymede, and Ceres have reservoirs of liquid water along with the energy and minerals necessary for life. The discovery of microorganisms on any of them would revolutionize our knowledge of how life works.

For Travelers in the Night this is Dr. Al Grauer.
Go to travelersinthenight.org program 299 for more information.
© 2016 A. D. Grauer and ℗ 2016 A. D. Grauer


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300-Biggest Ear


Published PRX October 27 , 2016
Recorded October 25, 2016

China has constructed and is beginning  to operate the worlds largest radio telescope called FAST.  It is a dish more than 1,600 feet in diameter, is in a zone free from human radio interference, has a surface area  large enough to hold 36 NFL football fields, points straight up, and is located in a natural sinkhole called a "Karst".  To observe a larger area of the sky than passes directly overhead as the Earth rotates on its axis, FAST uses a very clever system of cables, pulleys, and actuators to move the radio receiver cage across the face of the dish as well as to change the shape of the dish itself.  These innovations allows FAST to detect signals from a large area of the sky and to track objects for a relatively long period of time. 

This capability will allow FAST to discover new pulsars, map the distribution of the hydrogen in the local Universe, detect interstellar organic molecules, and to search for signals from alien civilizations.  

FAST's first observations are of a pulsar more than a thousand light years from Earth.  It is expected to discover thousands more of these rapidly spinning neutron stars.

Managing the data from FAST is an interesting effort since it is expected to collect enough information to fill 120,000 Blu-Ray 25 gigabyte disks every year.

Every time humans come up with a better more sensitive way to view the Universe exciting unpredicted results are likely. 

For Travelers in the Night this is Dr. Al Grauer.
Go to travelersinthenight.org program 300 for more information.
© 2016 A. D. Grauer and ℗ 2016 A. D. Grauer





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