“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!

From Antarctica to Mars: Growing Food in Extreme Conditions

Even those of us with the greenest thumbs are baffled by the idea of growing food in Antarctica. From my tiny desk plant to my neighbor’s cabbage patch, plants generally have the same requirements: soil, sun and water. At the southern end of the planet, however, those are all scarce commodities. Nonetheless, on April 5, 2018, the team managing the EDEN-ISS greenhouse at Neumayer III announced that they had harvested 8 pounds of salad greens, 18 cucumbers and 70 radishes. This project has implications beyond just Antarctica, from moderate climates on Earth to future Mars missions. Continue reading “From Antarctica to Mars: Growing Food in Extreme Conditions”

Biotechnology in Space: Partnering with the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium

The BioPharmaceutical Technology Center Institute (BTC Institute) has been a member of the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium (WSGC) since 2002. As an educational arm of NASA, the mission of WSGC “is to use the excitement and vision of space and aerospace science to equip the citizens of Wisconsin with the math, science and technology tools they need to thrive in the 21st century.”

Also as noted on WSGC’s website, “The mission of NASA’s Space Grant Program is to contribute to the nation’s science enterprise by funding education, research, and informal education projects through a national network of university-based Space Grant consortia.” Members of these consortia include academic institutions, government agencies, businesses and other educational organizations, such as the BTC Institute.
Of particular relevance to the WSGC/BTC Institute partnership, Space Grant Program goals include working to:

  • Recruit and train professionals, especially women, and underrepresented minorities, and persons with disabilities, for careers in aerospace related fields.
  • Develop a strong science, mathematics, and technology education base from elementary through university levels.

Continue reading “Biotechnology in Space: Partnering with the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium”

So NASA Found Some New Exoplanets…Now What?

34412848-March-8-Planets-600x600-WEBYou have probably heard a lot of excitement over NASA’s recent announcement about the discovery of seven earth-size planets found orbiting around the star TRAPPIST-1, which is part of the constellation Aquarius.

These exoplanets are notable because they exist within the habitable zone of the star (nicknamed Goldilocks planets because this area is not too hot and not too cold) and are probably rocky with the potential to contain water on their surface.

A lot of the enthusiasm revolves around the hope that one of these planets might harbor extraterrestrial life or could be suitable for human inhabitants. Of course, many further observations must be made to determine if these scenarios are plausible, not to mention the huge advances in technology that would need to occur so we could actually verify the planetary conditions or send humans 40 light-years away. Continue reading “So NASA Found Some New Exoplanets…Now What?”

Top Science Books of 2016

While I planned to write about New Year’s resolutions for the first Promega Connections blog of 2017, I was sidetracked by some “best of 2016” lists—in particular, best science books. I realized though that these seemingly unrelated ideas overlapped at some level because every year I resolve to find time to read more books. What was once an easy and natural escape for me, like for so many others, reading for fun now requires a bit of effort and prioritization. With the continual distractions of Netflix, social media and online news stories, it’s a challenge to find time to read books the way I once did.

So, in honor of a new year’s resolution do more of what I like and less of what I don’t like, here is a list of what has been deemed the best science books of 2016. I culled through the lists of several of the most reputable science blogs and publications and looked for overlap among them. Between the Science Friday blog, New York Magazine’s blog, The Science of Us, Smithsonian Magazine, NPR, and the New York Times’ best of 2016 lists there are loads of suggestions to keep you reading until the start of the next decade. Below are eight recommendations that appeared on several “best of” lists. Continue reading “Top Science Books of 2016”

When I Grow Up, I Want To Write #PewPew Hashtags

Artist’s rendering of Curiosity using its ChemCam. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

I’m not generally a space nut, but I do get a huge kick out of the work we’ve done to put rovers on Mars. I’ve felt pride and loneliness on behalf of the earlier rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, and cheered the unexpected longevity of their missions. They always felt so plucky and can-do; sort of a robotic extension of the American spirit on a daunting new frontier. Who’s a cute little robot pioneer doing incredibly valuable scientific exploration? You are! YOU ARE!

Earlier this month, hours after Mars Curiosity navigated it’s “seven minutes of terror” and successfully landed on the Red Planet, I laid in bed, having just soothed my daughter back to sleep. All that soothing had had the opposite effect on me: I was wide awake. I decided to try to wind myself back down by staring at the small illuminated screen on my phone and catching up on some tweets. What can I say? It makes me drowsy every…single…time…zzzzzzz. As I scrolled through my Twitter feed, I saw tweet after tweet from my friends and connections heralding the latest interplanetary achievement by NASA. Curiosity was on the ground! Successfully! They did it! The mood was nothing less than jubilant and awestruck, and I found myself getting completely sucked in. Yeah, this WAS super cool! I mean, we built a SKY CRANE? There was a guy with a MOHAWK? Whooo-hoo! USA! USA! USA! Continue reading “When I Grow Up, I Want To Write #PewPew Hashtags”

Curiosity Rover on Track for August 5 Landing

[wpvideo kN9KABwW]With the amazing, beyond belief success of the Mars Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, the expectations are high for Curiosity. However, the task is far more difficult. With a much larger rover to land, the landing is more difficult. If you haven’t seen NASA’s “Seven Minutes of Terror” video, it’s worth a look.

Where will you be on August 5? Will you be awake and holding your breath and watching your twitter feed—looking for the first news of a successful landing from NASA?

Finding Life on Mars May Be Complicated by Microbes Hitching a Ride from Earth

“The Andromeda Strain”, a novel written by Michael Crichton, remains one of my favorite science fiction novels for two reasons (spoiler alert for the plot): The US government deliberately sent objects into space to scoop up extraterrestrial microorganisms and examine their potential to be used as a weapon (with the expected consequences of contaminated space probes falling near human habitats and causing trouble), and the deadly organism infecting humans is stopped in its tracks by the inescapable bounds of its pH requirements exemplified by two survivors in an afflicted town: a crying baby and a Sterno-drinking man. Reality may be a bit different from the novel but the principle is the same: We are launching probes from our planet and sending them to other planetary bodies, sometimes to stay on another planet, sometimes to return to Earth. In both cases, worries about terrestrial organisms contaminating other planets and extraterrestrial organisms contaminating Earth are valid. Because we are sending more and more probes to examine the possibility of life on other planetary bodies, Curiosity being the most recent example, the question remains: How do you adequately test for organisms that may be hitching a ride from Earth into space? Continue reading “Finding Life on Mars May Be Complicated by Microbes Hitching a Ride from Earth”

A Cure for 1970s-era Sci-Fi Special Effects: NASA’s Image of the Day Gallery

Earth viewed from spaceI enjoy science fiction (sci-fi) movies and television shows and include the original Star Wars trilogy in my top ten list of favorite movies—certainly Star Wars: A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back but less so the Return of the Jedi simply because I find the ewoks more annoying than cute. This choice in entertainment was probably imprinted upon me at an early age. At age 7, I saw Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope as my first movie in a movie theater, and my brothers and I had piles of Star Wars-related toys. Also, I remember watching reruns of the original Star Trek but only when we could get grainy reception of a distant television station. I watched the original Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who during the Tom Baker years and even Pigs in Space on The Muppet Show. It was the late 1970s and 1980s, and I was surrounded by images of space travel, albeit the poor-quality, often cheesy sci-fi images typical of that era.
Continue reading “A Cure for 1970s-era Sci-Fi Special Effects: NASA’s Image of the Day Gallery”

Minding the As and P: Can Arsenic Substitute for Phosphorus or Not?

Image of GFAJ-1 grown on arsenic. Image Credit: Jodi Switzer Blum
Back in December 2010, there was a press conference held by NASA to announce the discovery of a bacterium found in a high salt, high pH lake with high concentrations of arsenic that seemed to have substituted arsenic for phosphorus in the bacterium’s biomolecules. This set off a wave of response in the blogosphere regarding what Felisa Wolfe-Simon and her team did nor did not do to confirm arsenic was incorporated into DNA molecules. Controversy ranged from the ability of arsenic to form a stable compound to the types of experiments conducted to confirm incorporation of arsenic into molecules like DNA.

Wolfe-Simon et al. stated they would address all critiques of the Science paper if the critiques were also subject to peer review like their paper titled “A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus”. On May 27, Science published eight Letters to the Editor and the Wolfe-Simon et al. response to the critical comments. Continue reading “Minding the As and P: Can Arsenic Substitute for Phosphorus or Not?”