September 9: Membership Meeting / Dark Matter and Gravity

Photo: Stacy McGaugh.
Dr. Stacy McGaugh. Image Credit: CWRU

The September 2019 meeting of the Cuyahoga Astronomical Association (CAA) will feature a presentation by Dr. Stacy McGaugh, Case Western University Professor and Chair of Astronomy. In “Dark Matter and Gravity in the Universe,” Dr. McGaugh will discuss his work on the search for dark matter and the possibility that it does not exist and we simply do not understand gravity! He has co-authored several papers outlining this controversial view.

The CAA’s monthly meetings are held on the second Monday of every month except December at 7:30 p.m. in the Rocky River Nature Center; 24000 Valley Parkway; North Olmsted, Ohio, in the Cleveland Metroparks. Meeting programs are open to the public. Following the presentation and a brief social break, the club will conduct its membership business meeting.

Cassini: A parcel of papers published

The Cassini spacecraft ended its mission on Sept. 15, 2017. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
This natural-color view is a composite of images taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft’s narrow-angle camera at a distance of approximately 1.4 million miles (2.3 million kilometers) from Saturn. The Cassini spacecraft ended its mission on Sept. 15, 2017. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

October 4, 2018 — New research emerging from the final orbits of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft represents a huge leap forward in our understanding of the Saturn system — especially the mysterious, never-before-explored region between the planet and its rings. Some preconceived ideas are turning out to be wrong while new questions are being raised.

Six teams of researchers are publishing their work Oct. 5 in the journal Science, based on findings from Cassini’s Grand Finale. That’s when, as the spacecraft was running out of fuel, the mission team steered Cassini spectacularly close to Saturn in 22 orbits before deliberately vaporizing it in a final plunge into the atmosphere in September 2017.

Knowing Cassini’s days were numbered, its mission team went for gold. The spacecraft flew where it was never designed to fly. For the first time, it probed Saturn’s magnetized environment, flew through icy, rocky ring particles and sniffed the atmosphere in the 1,200-mile-wide (2,000-kilometer-wide) gap between the rings and the cloud tops. Not only did the flight path push the spacecraft to its limits, the new findings illustrate how powerful and agile the instruments were.

Many more Grand Finale science results are to come, but here are some of today’s highlights:

  • Complex organic compounds embedded in water nanograins rain down from Saturn’s rings into its upper atmosphere. Scientists saw water and silicates, but they were surprised to see also methane, ammonia, carbon monoxide, nitrogen and carbon dioxide. The composition of the organics is different from that found on moon Enceladus — and also different from that on moon Titan, meaning there are at least three distinct reservoirs of organic molecules in the Saturn system.
  • For the first time, Cassini saw up close how rings interact with the planet and observed inner-ring particles and gases falling directly into the atmosphere. Some particles take on electric charges and spiral along magnetic-field lines, falling into Saturn at higher latitudes — a phenomenon known as “ring rain.” But scientists were surprised to see that others are dragged quickly into Saturn at the equator. And it’s all falling out of the rings faster than scientists thought — as much as 22,000 pounds (10,000 kilograms) of material per second.
  • Scientists were surprised to see what the material looks like in the gap between the rings and Saturn’s atmosphere. They knew that the particles throughout the rings ranged from large to small. But the sampling in the gap showed mostly tiny, nanometer-sized particles, like smoke, suggesting that some yet-unknown process is grinding up particles.
  • Saturn and its rings are even more interconnected than scientists thought. Cassini revealed a previously unknown electric-current system that connects the rings to the top of Saturn’s atmosphere.
  • Scientists discovered a new radiation belt around Saturn, close to the planet and composed of energetic particles. They found that while the belt actually intersects with the innermost ring, the ring is so tenuous that it doesn’t block the belt from forming.
  • Unlike every other planet with a magnetic field in our Solar System, Saturn’s magnetic field is almost completely aligned with its spin axis. The new data shows a magnetic-field tilt of less than 0.0095 degrees. (Earth’s magnetic field is tilted 11 degrees from its spin axis.) According to everything scientists know about how planetary magnetic fields are generated, Saturn should not have one. It’s a mystery that physicists will be working to solve.
  • Cassini flew above Saturn’s magnetic poles, directly sampling regions where radio emissions are generated. The findings more than doubled the number of direct measurements of radio sources from the planet, one of the few non-terrestrial locations where scientists have been able to study a radio-generation mechanism that is believed to operate throughout the universe.

For the Cassini mission, the science rolling out from Grand Finale orbits more than justifies the calculated risk of diving into the gap — skimming the upper atmosphere and skirting the edge of the inner rings, said Cassini Project Scientist Linda Spilker.

“Almost everything going on in that region turned out to be a surprise,” Spilker said. “That was the importance of going there, to explore a place we’d never been before. And the expedition really paid off — the data is tremendously exciting.”

Analysis of Cassini data from the spacecraft’s instruments will be ongoing for years to come, helping to paint a clearer picture of Saturn.

“Many mysteries remain, as we put together pieces of the puzzle,” Spilker said. “Results from Cassini’s final orbits turned out to be more interesting than we could have imagined.”

The papers published in Science are:

On Oct. 4, as the Science publication embargo lifts, articles describing research complementary to these findings will post online in Geophysical Research Letters (GRL), a journal of the American Geophysical Union (AGU).

At Monday, August 13 meeting: Crewed American space missions: 2018

The program for the August 13 General Membership Meeting will cover American Crewed Space Missions: 2018. The talk will be delivered by Tom Benson, a retired NASA aerospace engineer.

SpaceX Falcon 9 - Credit: SpaceX

On July 8, 2011, the final Space Shuttle mission was launched from Cape Canaveral.

For the last six years, the United States has paid the Russian Space Agency to deliver crew members to the International Space Station (ISS). That process is about to end as Americans will once again ride on American spacecraft launched from U.S. soil!

The Commercial Crew Program of NASA has contracted with SpaceX and Boeing to each develop a spacecraft which can deliver and return astronauts to the ISS. The first flights are scheduled for this year. Tom Benson, retired from NASA Glenn Research Center, will report on these missions and share with us any breaking news from the “high frontier!”

The CAA’s monthly meetings are held on the second Monday of every month (except December) at 7:30 PM at the Rocky River Nature Center; 24000 Valley Parkway; North Olmsted, Ohio, in the Cleveland Metroparks.

Following the presentation and a brief social break, the club will conduct its membership business meeting.

Illustration: Falcon 9 booster with Dragon crewed spacecraft. Credit: SpaceX

Monday, July 9: A quick trip to Alpha Centauri, and CAA’s Monthly General Membership Meeting

Photo: This wide-field view of the sky around the bright star Alpha Centauri was created from photographic images forming part of the Digitized Sky Survey 2. The star appears so big just because of the scattering of light by the telescope's optics as well as in the photographic emulsion. Alpha Centauri is the closest star system to the Solar System.
This wide-field view of the sky around the bright star Alpha Centauri was created from photographic images forming part of the Digitized Sky Survey 2. The star appears so big just because of the scattering of light by the telescope’s optics as well as in the photographic emulsion. Alpha Centauri is the closest star system to the Solar System. Credit: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2
Acknowledgement: Davide De Martin

Coming up on Monday, July 9 is the monthly meeting of the Cuyahoga Astronomical Association (CAA). The evening’s speaker will be Jay Reynolds, club member, research astronomer at Cleveland State University, and host of WKYC’s “In The Sky.” Jay will discuss how scientists are working now on a project to send high-speed probes to our Sun’s nearest neighboring star, with data results in less than 40 years of launch!

The CAA’s monthly meetings are held on the second Monday of every month (except December) at 7:30 PM at the Rocky River Nature Center; 24000 Valley Parkway; North Olmsted, Ohio, in the Cleveland Metroparks.

Following the presentation and a brief social break, the club will conduct its membership business meeting.

November 13: Monthly Membership Meeting

Artist's Concept: Nuclear Rocket at Mars. Credit: NASA
Artist’s Concept: Nuclear Rocket at Mars. Credit: NASA

The Cuyahoga Astronomical Association (CAA) will host its monthly meeting at 7:30 PM, Monday, November 13 in the Cleveland Metroparks’ Rocky River Nature Center, North Olmsted. Our speaker, Dr. Stanley Borowski, a Senior Engineer at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, Cleveland, will discuss the use of nuclear rocket engines in space exploration. The program is free and open to the public, no reservations required.

Following the program, the club’s monthly membership meeting will convene.

Cassini saves daring maneuvers and observations for last

Cassini ring-grazing orbits. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This graphic shows the closest approaches of Cassini’s final two orbital phases. Ring-grazing orbits are shown in gray (at left); Grand Finale orbits are shown in blue. The orange line shows the spacecraft’s Sept. 2017 final plunge into Saturn. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Saturn-orbiting Cassini spacecraft has made its first close dive past the outer edges of Saturn’s rings since beginning its penultimate mission phase on Nov. 30.

Cassini crossed through the plane of Saturn’s rings on Dec. 4 at 8:09 AM EST at a distance of approximately 57,000 miles (91,000 kilometers) above Saturn’s cloud tops. This is the approximate location of a faint, dusty ring produced by the planet’s small moons Janus and Epimetheus, and just 6,800 miles (11,000 kilometers) from the center of Saturn’s F ring.

About an hour prior to the ring-plane crossing, the spacecraft performed a short burn of its main engine that lasted about six seconds. About 30 minutes later, as it approached the ring plane, Cassini closed its canopy-like engine cover as a protective measure.

“With this small adjustment to the spacecraft’s trajectory, we’re in excellent shape to make the most of this new phase of the mission,” said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

A few hours after the ring-plane crossing, Cassini began a complete scan across the rings with its radio science experiment to study their structure in great detail.

“It’s taken years of planning, but now that we’re finally here, the whole Cassini team is excited to begin studying the data that come from these ring-grazing orbits,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at JPL. “This is a remarkable time in what’s already been a thrilling journey.”

Cassini’s imaging cameras obtained views of Saturn about two days before crossing through the ring plane, but not near the time of closest approach. The focus of this first close pass was the engine maneuver and observations by Cassini’s other science instruments. Future dives past the rings will feature some of the mission’s best views of the outer regions of the rings and small, nearby moons.

Each of Cassini’s orbits for the remainder of the mission will last one week. The next pass by the rings’ outer edges is planned for Dec. 11. The ring-grazing orbits — 20 in all — will continue until April 22, when the last close flyby of Saturn’s moon Titan will reshape Cassini’s flight path. With that encounter, Cassini will leap over the rings, making the first of 22 plunges through the 1,500-mile-wide (2,400-kilometer) gap between Saturn and its innermost ring on April 26.

A new pockmark on the face of Mars

Photo: New crater on Mars. Image Credit: NASA
A dramatic, fresh impact crater dominates this false-color image taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on Nov. 19, 2013.

NASA-JPL: Space rocks hitting Mars excavate fresh craters at a pace of more than 200 per year, but few new Mars scars pack as much visual punch as one seen in a NASA image released February 5, 2014.

The image from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows a crater about 100 feet (30 meters) in diameter at the center of a radial burst painting the surface with a pattern of bright and dark tones. (See a high-resolution version of the image here.)

The scar appeared at some time between imaging of this location by the orbiter’s Context Camera in July 2010 and again in May 2012. Based on apparent changes between those before-and-after images at lower resolution, researchers used HiRISE to acquire this new image on Nov. 19, 2013. The impact that excavated this crater threw some material as far as 9.3 miles (15 kilometers).

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Project is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. HiRISE is operated by the University of Arizona, Tucson. The instrument was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo. Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, built and operates the Context Camera.

For more information about the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been studying Mars from orbit since 2006, visit http://www.nasa.gov/mro .