“We’re From NASA”: How Citizen Science Helped Find Ultima Thule

The science world is a-twitter with excitement lately, following the recent arrival of the New Horizons spacecraft at 2014 MU69, dubbed “Ultima Thule” by popular vote. The name means “beyond the borders of the known world”, signifying Ultima Thule’s status as the most distant object ever visited by Earthly spacecraft. Ultima Thule is a dark reddish rock in the Kuiper belt, a contact binary formed by two smaller rocks coming together in what was presumably a gentle fashion.

Do you wanna build a snowman? Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Reaching this space snowman 6.5 billion kilometers away from Earth took brains, dedication, ingenuity and the help of an unnamed Argentinian man and his daughter.

To successfully intercept Ultima Thule, the New Horizons mission team needed to answer some questions, such as “What trajectory is Ultima Thule on?” and “Is there any space debris around Ultima Thule that will destroy our spacecraft?” Being so small (~30km diameter at its widest point), observing Ultima Thule directly from this far away would be too difficult, so the team relied on data gathered during stellar occultations, i.e., when Ultima Thule passed in front of a star.

One of these occultations occurred on July 17, 2017, in the Patagonia region of Argentina. The team had already struck out twice in trying to observe Ultima Thule passing over a star: once in South Africa, and again using the airborne telescope SOFIA over the Pacific Ocean, so tension was already running high.

On this particular night, it happened to be very windy where the observation team was, which is bad news when you’re trying to hold steady focus on a tiny object that’s really far away. The team found themselves needing help to shield the telescopes they had brought with them from wind vibrations, and get the data from the star “without it jiggling around all over the place”, as planetary scientist Anne Verbiscer puts it.

Where does one find volunteers for an astronomical observation? Well, apparently even in Argentina NASA is known and loved, and help can be found just by walking into the community. “If you just started out with ‘We’re from NASA,’ people started coming out of the woodwork,” said Dr. Verbiscer. And that is how one Argentinian man and his daughter ended up spending their evening blocking the wind from a telescope using a truck, a tarp and some plywood, allowing the NASA folks to collect the data they needed to send New Horizons to Ultima Thule.

Want to learn more about the search for Ultima Thule? Check out the episode of NOVA that inspired this blog!

Make Plans Now to View a Rare Astronomical Phenomenon

Solar eclipse viewing. By Skoch3 (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Solar eclipse viewing. By Skoch3 (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
During my college years, I witnessed an event that was new to me: A solar eclipse. I made a pinhole projector to watch the moon pass over the sun on a piece of white paper and have to admit, the darkening during midday was quite interesting. However, it was not a total eclipse so there was still some sunlight slipping around the moon. Hence using the pinhole projector to preserve my eyesight.

Next year on August 21, the United States will experience a total solar eclipse. While I will be able to see the solar eclipse in Wisconsin, I will not experience a total eclipse. In fact, I will need to head south and west to states like Nebraska, Kentucky and Missouri to reach part of the US where the moon will fully block the sun. Why is everyone talking about the 2017 Solar Eclipse in 2016? So you can plan your vacation of course!

Have a relative or friend you haven’t seen in a while conveniently located in the total eclipse zone? Ask if they would be willing to cohost a Solar Eclipse party. Alternatively, just ask to stay with friends or family and join up with any public observations of the solar eclipse. You need to plan a family vacation anyway, right? Why not conveniently plan to stay in a location where hey, there’s a total solar eclipse today. Let’s watch! Fun and educational for everyone.

Don’t forget your eclipse viewing glasses (so attractive in cardboard chic) or add filters to telescopes and binoculars for magnified viewing pleasure. Bonus to a total solar eclipse? You can gaze at the moon-blocked sun with your naked eyes for up to 2.5 minutes, depending on location. Just don’t look too long to preserve your retinas.

So if you need an excuse to plan a unique vacation (and maybe appease some rarely seen friends and relatives), consider placing yourself in the swath of the country where the moon will obliterate your view of the sun (for less than three minutes). And if these locations don’t appeal to you, just wait until 2024 when the eastern portion of the US will be treated to a total solar eclipse. Different cities in which to vacation and other relatives to visit!

Summer Friday Blog: Journey into Outer Space for the Delta Aquarid Meteor Shower

11156716_lThis week we travel to outer space, the Final Frontier, to catch a glimpse of the Southern Delta Aquarid Meteor Shower. But don’t worry, you don’t have to leave your backyard. Just grab a blanket and find a place without too much light pollution, and you’ll be able to catch a glimpse of this worldwide phenomenon.

The Southern Delta Aquarid Meteor Shower is an annual summer occurrence that spans July and August, but this weekend marks its nominal peak in activity. From July 26th through August 1st, give or take a couple of days because nature is lovably fickle, we can expect a maximum hourly rate of 15-20 meteors. That might not sound like much, but a special angle of atmospheric entry gives Delta Aquarid meteors long, lingering trails that seriously set this shower apart.

Most meteor showers are created by comets. As a comet circles our Sun, it sheds a rocky dust stream along its orbit. When Earth travels through this space litter, the result is a meteor shower. Astronomers believe that the Southern Delta Aquarids originated from the breakup of two sungrazing comets, Marsden and Kracht.

Shooting stars, as they’re lovingly called, can appear anywhere in the sky, but if you trace the tails it becomes clear that each shower has a definite epicenter. The showers are named after these radiant points, taking the name of the constellation dominating that particular region of the sky. The Delta Aquarids, as you can probably guess, pay homage to the constellation Aquarius. Look for the star Skat within the “water bearer” constellation, the point where Delta Aquari meteors are born.

For every time zone and all continents, the hours between midnight and dawn will be the best time to glimpse these brief celestial bodies. Those of you in the southern hemisphere and southerly latitudes in the northern hemisphere will get a better show, as is typical with this particular shower, though all observers are bound to see activity. Unfortunately, this year the waning crescent moon rises around midnight and will drown out dimmer meteors. But we’ll still see the big ones, and those are arguably the most thrilling.

Meteors are really just bits of interplanetary debris traveling tens of thousands of miles per hour, igniting as they vaporize in Earth’s upper atmosphere, but they sure are pretty. For a preview, take a look at this video of last year’s meteor shower, filmed August 2 by Canadian Geographic.