Gravitational Waves and Gamma-ray Bursts

There are (at least) three paths that lead to excitement in the LIGO data, so understanding why all of the scientists all over the world are so excited can be a little confusing. I’m going to try to walk through them (briefly) at the request of a friend.

Just to put this in perspective, nearly everyone who works in any kind of astronomy on the planet is working on this right now, and the nuances of what’s interesting and/or important won’t become clear for another few years.

That being said, no one has ever accused me of not liking to talk (at length) about something that’s interesting (and that I know a little about), so here we go.

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Shooting Jupiter

This enhanced color view of Jupiter’s south pole was created by citizen scientist Gabriel Fiset using data from the JunoCam instrument on NASA’s Juno spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA/Juno Image GalleryOkay, this qualifies as an exciting week for me. NuSTAR is pointing at Jupiter at the same time as Juno (which took the amazing image above) is at it’s closest approach to Jupiter (also known as a “perijove”). Part of my job is figuring out how to target objects that move in the sky (Jupiter, the Sun, the Moon, etc), so this week is a bit of a test.

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Solar Eclipse Totality

If you’ve been paying attention this year, you may know that there’s a total Solar eclipse crossing the lower 48 this August. This will be a total solar eclipse, meaning that the Moon will be close enough to the Earth so that it will completely block out the Sun (unlike during an annular eclipse, when the Moon is just a little farther away and only covers most of the solar disk).

This is also the first total eclipse visible from the Lower 48 in the last century.

In one of my meetings this morning someone mentioned that there are a bunch of awesome interactive Google Maps that have been generated to show the track of the eclipse.

Go play, it’s fun.

Water, water, everywhere?

Image of a crater on Ceres from the Dawn mission. Image NASA/JPL.

Water in the shadows, from a new source

This paper is making the rounds today and describes new observations of the Ceres asteroid/dwarf planet (take your pick) located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The Dawn Mission has been orbiting Ceres (the second of two asteroids the mission is visiting) for the last year, staring down at the surface. What it’s found is water literally in the place where the Sun don’t shine.

The paper comes courtesy of Nature Astronomy, which is a newly formed journal from the Nature publishing group. And, in a nice turn of events, it comes along with this video that gives you a nice background in why the result is exciting and what the impact is. This is one of the better press release videos that I’ve seen in the last few years and I hope it’s an indication of a higher level of production quality than we’ve had to go on before.

Unfortunately, the video is a little difficult to embed here, so you’ll have to click through to their site above to check it out. Go watch.


CYGNSS is away

 3, 2, 1…drop…

I’ve got a serious soft spot for people who spend all of their time and energy building an amazing scientific instrument, then have to stick it on top of a rocket, put it underneath a plane, and then drop the damn thing out of the sky.

Here, it’s the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System, or CYGNSS.

This is actually a pretty inventive concept; you fly a constellation of tiny satellites (each weighing about 20 kg) that are glorified GPS receivers. The catch is that they can listen to the signals both directly from the GPS satellites and the signals that reflect off of the Earth’s surface. This gives you information about the surface conditions (ocean chop, wind conditions, etc) that will give atmospheric scientists a pretty big boost in trying to understand hurricanes and to predict their path.

Unlike with NuSTAR, CYGNSS launched from Kennedy Space Center (not an atoll in the middle of the south pacific) and during the day. So they get a chase plane:


Oddly enough, there’s still a lag between the video and the audio. For NuSTAR this was about three or four seconds from we heard the “3, 2, 1, Drop!” and when we actually saw the rocket drop out of the cargo hold of the L-1011 aircraft that serves as the “first stage” of the launch.


So, understanding how hurricanes work and how to predict their motion sounds like a good thing right? It is worth stating here that this was funded out of the NASA Earth Science Mission Directorate, which is precisely the section of NASA that President-Elect Trump and many Republicans wants to seriously cut. Innovative missions like this that leverage technology that’s already existing may simply no longer exist in the coming years. Something to think about.

In the meantime, go watch the launch video again and look forward to new and exciting science coming from CYGNSS.

Commuter Bookclub – Failure is Not an Option (Gene Kranz)

I spend a lot of time in the car. For people like me there are a couple of things that keep us sane. Good books are one of them.

Welcome to The Commuter Bookclub!

This week we’re getting a history of the U.S. Space Program through the Apollo days from Failure is Not an Option by Gene Kranz.

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