Thursday, 16 July 2020

Comet NEOWISE Salvages 2020 For Astronomers

Comet NEOWISE as seen from Tsehum Harbour in Sidney, B.C. at 11:15 p.m. July 19, 2020. Chris Gainor photo.
Like everyone else, amateur astronomers have spent the last four months suffering under the weight of the coronavirus pandemic. I wrapped up my two-year term as President of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) in June at a Zoom meeting instead of our annual General Assembly, which was supposed to take place in Vancouver.

My final three months in office involved working with our staff to shift our activities from in-person to online formats, or cancelling them. The RASC's public outreach events, which often involve members of the public putting their eyes to telescope eyepieces, are a definite no-no in the era of COVID-19. The RASC’s 29 Centres across Canada have quickly adapted to the restraints the coronavirus has put on our hobby.

With some suddenness and little warning, however, a new comet has appeared in our skies and made 2020 notable for astronomers for a happy reason. We will remember 2020 as the year of Comet NEOWISE.

While comets routinely fly into the inner reaches of our solar system, most are difficult to find, even with telescopes. The last major naked eye comet to light up our northern skies was Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997.

Astronomers and many people with only the most casual interest in astronomy love comets, and we have lived through many false alarms over the last 18 years. For example, Sky and Telescope magazine featured comets on the cover of its July issue in the hope that Comet ATLAS, discovered late last year, would break the long draught of naked eye comets. Just as the issue was going to press, Comet ATLAS fell apart as it neared the Sun, as many comets do.

The NEOWISE space telescope, which has been used to discover many comets, most of them of little interest to most observers, was used to discover Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE on March 27, too late for a mention in the July Sky and Telescope. This time, the comet lit up as it approached its rendezvous with the Sun on July 3, and it held together as it swung past the Sun into northern skies. Although Comet NEOWISE is fading slightly as it moves away from the Sun, it is moving closer to Earth until July 22, when it will be about 103 million km away from us. It will fade at a faster rate as it moves away from Earth after that date.

Comet NEOWISE first became visible in Canada last week shortly before sunrise low in the northeast sky. I first saw it last Saturday shortly before 4 a.m. Soon it was visible after sunset in the northwest. This weekend it will be visible all night in Canada as it heads toward the Big Dipper and gets higher in the sky.

Already astronomy-related social media are full of comet photos. NEOWISE is not only the first major naked eye comet in 18 years, it is the first one to appear since most amateur astronomers made the switch from photographic film to digital photography. The result is a large number of amazing photos of this comet, even at this early date, from legions of skilled amateur astrophotographers. Even newcomers to astrophotography like me have been able to obtain photos of this elusive visitor.

In the next few days, Comet NEOWISE will be relatively easy to pick out in the northern part of the night sky below and to the right of the Big Dipper. Keep an eye out for jaw-dropping comet photos in astronomy-related social media and publications. Very soon NEOWISE will fade from sight as it moves out of the inner solar system. It won’t be back for 6,800 years.

We won’t see this comet again, but it will leave behind memories that will give us astronomers something to smile about whenever the topic of 2020 comes up.

Tuesday, 14 July 2020

Five Years Since Victoria's Pluto Party

Ivar Arroway updates Pluto flyby celebrants in Victoria about New Horizons' latest findings, 14 July 2015. Chris Gainor photo.
Today marks five years since the New Horizons spacecraft flew by Pluto and its moons. It took New Horizons nine years to get there, so the rendezvous was widely anticipated.

In my case, I had lived in Victoria B.C. for nearly two decades before we finally got a look at the ninth planet in our solar system, or depending on your viewpoint, the king of the dwarf planets.

Most of those years I lived near Pluto’s Restaurant, which serves Tex-Mex food in a converted service station on the edge of downtown Victoria. It has always been decorated with photos of the (other) eight planets of our solar system. When, I wondered, would a photo of its namesake object join them?

During the time New Horizons flew from Earth, swung by Jupiter, and finally gave us earthlings our first real glimpse of Pluto, I came up with a plan. I decided to throw a party the evening of July 14, 2015, at Pluto’s.

New Horizons made its closest passage to Pluto early that day, about the same time as its controllers at the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. released a close-up photo of Pluto. Word from the spacecraft that it had safely passed by Pluto was due to be received around dinner time.

That morning I got up and ran to my computer, got word that all appeared well, and then drank in the dramatic image showing the face of Pluto. I downloaded it and arranged for a high-quality printout at a photo lab near the restaurant.

With help from my friends in the Victoria Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, I arranged for a screen and a projector at the restaurant so we could follow the news from the APL control centre in Maryland. Astronomers Ivar Arroway and Michele Bannister, who were working at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory on solar system objects, helped update the crowd of people who came for dinner at Pluto’s on what New Horizons had found.

Pluto's Restaurant, Victoria B.C. Chris Gainor photo.

In addition to the usual great food from Pluto’s (“The Hottest Food From the Coolest Planet”) we enjoyed special cupcakes from Happy Ditty Bakery.

Finally, I was able to present a framed copy of the close-up photo of Pluto to the restaurant’s owner. The photo still hangs there today, along with the other planets.

Last year there was word that the block where Pluto’s is located is due to be redeveloped, which portends changes for Pluto’s. But in the meantime, the restaurant has returned to operation after being closed for a few weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic.

As for New Horizons, it is still going strong after upending scientists’ suppositions about Pluto, and in 2019, imaging Arrokoth, a Kuiper Belt object that orbits beyond Pluto.

This photo of Pluto as seen by New Horizons now hangs in Pluto's Restaurant. NASA photo.

Wednesday, 8 July 2020

The History Being Made By SpaceX Crew Dragon

SpaceX Crew Dragon Demo-2 (centre) docked at the International Space Station, July 2, 2020 (NASA)
Before it was half over, 2020 became a year that will stand out from the others, thanks to the worldwide coronavirus pandemic and the political and social discord over discrimination that has rocked the United States and spread beyond its borders.

Even without factoring in the pandemic and political developments, 2020 also promises to stand out in the history of space exploration because of the launch on May 30 of the SpaceX Crew Dragon Demo-2 spacecraft and its two astronauts from the Kennedy Space Center.

The headline on launch day was that Dragon's launch marked the end of nearly nine years since U.S. astronauts were last launched on an U.S. rocket from the territory of the United States, a drought that went back to the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011. If the work behind the Crew Dragon spacecraft and the NASA Commercial Crew program is met with a full measure of success, this flight will be remembered as something much bigger, a major step forward in making space accessible to humans.

As this blog entry was published, the Crew Dragon spacecraft remains docked to the International Space Station, which means that its historic mission is not yet complete. Waiting in the wings is the Boeing Starliner spacecraft, which must successfully fly one more robotic test flight before astronauts can climb on board.

That means it’s still too soon to celebrate the Dragon mission. The Crew of Demo-2 must get home, and then further flights lie ahead to verify confidence in Dragon and prove the Boeing Starliner. Both spacecraft have met setbacks, and Dragon has overcome them, while Starliner must fly once more without a crew due to the mixed results of its most recent test flight.

Success for both Dragon and Starliner will mean that Americans will have more than one option to fly into space from U.S. territory. Success will bring an end to the situation where U.S. access to space is dependent on a single type of spacecraft such as the Space Shuttle, which was often grounded during its 30-year flight history.

Dragon and Starliner are the first of a whole new generation of spacecraft that won’t belong to a government but to private firms. The hope is that soon SpaceX, Boeing and other companies will fly their own missions without reference to NASA, and their spacecraft will be available for other organizations and individuals that have the means. Other firms such as Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada Corporation are working to make their own spacecraft available as well.

Success in the Commercial Crew program should mean that access to space for U.S. citizens or anyone else from friendly countries will no longer be dependent on the ability and willingness of U.S. taxpayers to support space travel when there are so many other calls on government resources. Future space travelers should have something they really haven’t had before – a choice of spacecraft.

The launch of astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on board Dragon Demo-2 represents an important step in opening up access to space. If Demo-2 returns home safely and is followed by more successful flights, there will be many more spaceflight possibilities for people who aren’t professional astronauts, including people from outside the U.S. Fewer than 600 people have flown in space over the nearly 60 years since Yuri Gagarin blazed the trail. Perhaps very soon the ranks of space explorers can begin to increase in a dramatic fashion.

The successful Demo-2 launch was a badly needed piece of good news in a very trying year. More work needs to be done in the Commercial Crew program, and if it is crowned with success, those of us who want to see space opened up will have something to celebrate that transcends national pride.