Some September Post-Its

Hey, everyone! Wow, what a busy few days it’s been. Full moons, eclipses, dogs and cats living together (mass hysteria!) it’s hard to keep up sometimes. I don’t know about you, but I was really surprised by how much was written about this full Moon. One day, mark my words, that thing will be famous. As it goes off into the late night, and wanes away, maybe today would be a good a day to go through some very-space-exploration-related Post-Its I’ve had stuck to my desk for a while.

  • The big news over the last few days came from the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Gaia spacecraft. Last week,the ESA released the first detailed map of the sky produced by the data received from Gaia. This map shows over a billion (that’s billion with a B) stars, and it’s only the first pass at the data! And it’s only one one hundredth of the stars in the galaxy! Imagine a map that only covered 1% of the roads! It’s hard to even imagine what else we’re going to learn!
    Gaia is an observatory that was launched in 2013 and orbits the Sun from a point about a million miles, 1.5 million km, deeper into space than Earth is. It’s there to produce a 3D map of the galaxy. While you can’t see individual stars in this map, you can see the density of stars — how many there are in a given area. I love that you can see the Great Andromeda Galaxy (M31) and the Triangulum Galaxy (M33) in the lower left and the Small (SMC) and Large Magellanic Clouds (LMC) in the lower right of the map. The SMC and LMC aren’t giant galaxies like M31 and M33 are; they’re just a lot closer, so they look a lot bigger. This is really incredible stuff. It’s been great looking around the map.
    There’s more from the ESA here.
  • On September 6, American astronaut Jeff Williams, along with Cosmonauts Oleg Skripochka and Alexey Ovchinin returned home from the International Space Station (ISS) and landed safely in at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the steppe of Kazakhastan. This was Commander Williams’s fourth space flight. With that, he became the record-holder for most time spent in space by an American. He’s now spent more than 534 days in space. Wow. The previous American record holder was Scott Kelly, who earlier this year, returned from a year-long mission to the ISS, with about 520 total days. The world record for most time in space is held by Russian Gennady Padalka, who has spent 878 days in space. Congrats to them, and, like I say, wow.
  • News from the New Horizons probe came in that explains why Pluto’s moon, Charon has a dusty mane of red at its poles. The redness is caused by compounds called tholins. Turns out it works something like this. Pluto’s gravity isn’t strong enough to keep its atmosphere stable. As the atmosphere escapes, solar radiation turns the methane in the atmosphere into tholins, which then land on nearby Charon, which is only about 12,000 miles from Pluto. Over time, when Charon warms up thanks to changes in its seasons, the red tholin cap turns back into a gas and escapes from Charon.
    If you’re keeping score at home, New Horizons has gone about 320 million miles since it flew through the Pluto system in July 2015. This puts it about 3.4 billion miles away from home, moving away from the Sun at 33,000 miles an hour, on its way to Kuiper Belt Object MU69, which it’ll reach in January 2019. At the moment, New Horizons is so far it takes radio signals over 10 hours, round trip, to get there and back.
  • Speaking of far away space probes, thirty-five years ago, on August 25, 1981, Voyager 2 made its closest approach to Saturn as it flew through its system. It passed within 63,000 miles of Saturn, following Voyager 1’s 77,000 flyby the previous November. Those trips ultimately led to the creation of the Cassini mission. Cassini, which is now in its final year, has been returning incredible discoveries and photos from the ringed planet for the last 12 years.
    Voyager 1 is now about 11 billion miles away from home, and Voyager 2 about 10 billion, off in interstellar space, and counting, and they’re still sending back scientifically useful data! You think New Horizons is far? These two are so far that it takes radio signals over 15 hours to send that information… that’s the one way time! If you’ve been following along at all, seeing those first photos of Saturn all those years ago was a big deal in my life. It’s really something it’s it’s gone so long ago. It’s amazing what we’ve learned and are still learning from these missions. Thanks to everyone involved.
  • And, finally, a very happy birthday to astronaut Sunita Williams, whom I don’t think is related to Jeff. Commander Williams, who has spent over 321 hours in space, the most by a woman, and has spent over 50 hours on spacewalks, also a record. Imagine, 50 hours as a satellite of Earth, all on your own. Happy birthday!

Thanks for stopping by., everyone. That’s all for now. Remember, if there’s anything you want to talk about, or if you have any questions or comments or anything else, just leave a comment or drop me a line. Have a great night, and clear skies!


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