The smoking gun of #SolarFlares @ProfMcAteer

How do you observe something so fast, so hot, so dense?

“You have to be watching at the right time, at the right angle, with the right instruments to see a current sheet,” said @ProfMcAteer. “It’s hard to get all those ducks in a row.”


Space Billiards #NewHorizons @profmcateer

New Horizons was launched 2006 and has already flown 3 billion miles over 10 years on its journey of discovery. We now know Pluto is active with recent ice flows and a thin atmosphere. But the mission is far from over. It’s still moving outwards at about 15km per second, it has plenty of fuel, and the instrument packages are still working. Now astronomers get a free shot at the next target.

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 4.20.23 PMLuckily there is no shortage of targets.

The terrain beyond Pluto is a mostly unexplored treasure trove of opportunities for discovery, known as the Kuiper Belt. This realm is home to millions of small icy bodies, and present vital clues to the origins of the solar system. Usually the only chance we have to see one of these close up is when they visit us, as comets. But now as New Horizons plummets on into this space NASA have picked a target so we can really see one of these up close. The rather mundanely-named 2014MU69 was selected last year as the best follow on target. It is probably another 1.5 billion miles away and may be only a few 10km across, but we know its there and last week NASA carried out the course corrections to send the spacecraft that way. In Jan 2019, the spacecraft should thread the needle and intersect 2014MU69.

Kind of like space billiards, but with moving targets.

This mission hasn’t actually been approved by NASA yet but the additional expense getting to MU69 is small compared to the large payoff. Opportunities to visit our distant cousins are rare, so this is one we’ll take advantage of.

Crowd funding with an old Mcd’s #ISEE-3 #CrowdFunding


Can I get fries and a drink with that? An old abandoned McDonalds in California is the latest site of a crowd funding science success. Using public donations, the team have scrambled together equipment to communicate with an another old abandoned facility- ISEE3- a NASA observatory. The observatory still works fine, but was superseded by other instruments. Now, with some ingenuity, it is back online, taking new data and making it all available to the public immediately.

The full story is on

“The story begins back on August 12, 1978. That’s when NASA launched the International Sun/Earth Explorer 3, aka the ISEE-3 satellite. The satellite entered orbit at Lagrange Point L1, meaning it orbits the sun and maintains its position from the perspective of those of us on Earth. It later became known as the International Cometary Explorer or ICE after it took a quick dip into the tail of comet Giacobini-Zinner. But by 1997, NASA decided to break up with the satellite. I imagine there was some sort of “It’s not you, it’s us” type of message sent along. NASA checked in a couple of times with ISEE-3 but the satellite remained out of commission. Its batteries died a long time ago, but the satellite also has solar panels and can operate within 98-percent of its original parameters using solar power. In other words, it can still do science if someone were willing to put in the work to communicate with it.

Over at Betabeat, there’s a fantastic rundown of the process the team went through, including their limited contact with NASA (an organization that seems to be looking on with bemused curiosity). The team works out of a vacant McDonald’s and have opened the virtual doors to all the data the satellite gathers. Citizen science can move ahead with no delay (typically, NASA holds back on data gathered during missions for a number of months before releasing it to the public).

I absolutely love this story. It has a bit of everything. There’s the crowdfunding success that shows how people are excited about science. There’s the openness of sharing data — you never know who will find something interesting in all that information. And there’s the fact that the team was able to repurpose technology that otherwise would have remained dormant. It’s fantastic. Head over to Betabeat to read up on the whole adventure!”

Exploring a methane ocean #titan #MethaneLake

Never mind Fabian Cousteau,
how about under the ocean on one of Saturn’s Moons


Have a close look at this image of Titan. That blue haze around Titan is an atmosphere and that makes Titan a very interesting prospect for searching for life. The atmosphere makes its warm enough to sustain a moon ocean- not water, but methane. Now a new cosmic concept proposes to send a submarine to Titan and search this ocean for signs of primitive life.

How well do you know your galaxies?


Modern telescopes have presented astronomers with a problem: there are too many images of galaxies for scientists to classify every single one. But crowdsourcing has an answer. Since 2007, some astronomers have enlisted “citizen scientists” to do the heavy lifting through a project known as Galaxy Zoo. The original project was so successful, in fact, that a follow-up — called Galaxy Zoo 2 — started up in 2009 and ran for 14 months. The team behind it all (which comes from multiple universities around the world) has now publicly released the data from Zoo 2. In all, over 300,000 galaxies were organized by nearly 84,000 volunteers completed a total of over 16 million classifications.

How did it work? It’s pretty simple, really. Volunteers with no prior knowledge visited a website and were presented with an image of a galaxy. They then answered a series of questions about the visual form of the galaxy, like whether it had arms or a bulge. Images were analyzed by many volunteers — on average each was classified 44 times — allowing the team to ensure they were receiving acceptably accurate results.

Compiling data on galaxies using the same method employed by Yelp and Foursquare to figure out if restaurants take credit cards may seem amateur, but the researchers say that computers are not yet able to match the human eye in identifying the physical form of galaxies, and the data they’ve received has proven accurate. If you want to get involved, the team is now working through imagery provided by Hubble of some of the most distant galaxies yet.

NASA grand challenge


( Reuters) – NASA called on backyard astronomers and other citizen-scientists on Tuesday to help track asteroids that could create havoc on Earth.

The U.S. space agency has already identified 95 percent of the potentially planet-killing NEOs – near Earth objects – with a diameter of .62 miles or more, a size comparable to the space rock many scientists believe wiped out the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago.

Now NASA wants to work with individuals, government agencies, international partners and academia to “find all asteroid threats to human populations and know what to do about them.” Between 50 and 100 amateur astronomers are doing what is called light-curve analysis on space rocks, making repeated images of the astronomical bodies to help determine their characteristics, said Jason Kessler, program executive for what NASA calls Astroid Grand Challenge.

“We’re certainly going to need more help with that as our detection rate goes up,” Kessler said by telephone. He acknowledged that what NASA aims to do, at least in part, is to crowd-source asteroid detection.

Even smaller space rocks can be dangerous, whether or not they hit the Earth. In February, a meteorite about 19 yards in diameter exploded over central Russia, shattering windows, damaging buildings and injuring 1,200 people.

Earlier this month, an asteroid the size of a small truck zoomed past the Earth four times closer than the moon, crossing within about 65,000 miles over the Southern Ocean south of Tasmania, Australia.

Our new visitor


The Hubble Space Telescope captured this image of Comet C/2012 S1 (ISON) on April 10, 2013 when the comet was slightly closer than Jupiter’s orbit at a distance of 386 million miles from the sun (394 million miles from Earth). This comet is expected to put on a spectacular display in Earth’s sky – visible from both the Northern and Southern Hemisphere – in late 2013. It might even become a daytime comet!

Even at its current great distance from the Earth and sun, the comet is already active as sunlight warms the surface and causes frozen volatiles to sublimate. A detailed analysis of the dust coma surrounding the solid, icy nucleus reveals a strong jet blasting dust particles off the sunward-facing side of the comet’s nucleus. Preliminary measurements from the Hubble images suggest that the nucleus of ISON is no larger than three or four miles across. This is remarkably small considering the high level of activity observed in the comet so far, said researchers. Astronomers are using these images to measure the activity level of this comet and constrain the size of the nucleus, in order to predict the comet’s activity when it skims 700,000 miles above the Sun’s roiling surface on November 28.

The comet’s dusty coma, or head of the comet, is approximately 3,100 miles across, or 1.2 times the width of Australia. A dust tail extends more than 57,000 miles, far beyond Hubble’s field of view. More careful analysis is currently underway to improve these measurements and to predict the possible outcome of the sungrazing perihelion passage of this comet.

ISON stands for International Scientific Optical Network, a group of observatories in ten countries who have organized to detect, monitor, and track objects in space. ISON is managed by the

Institute of Applied Mathematics, part of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

How to capture an asteroid


According to a Florida senator, U.S. President Obama’s proposed federal budget for the coming fiscal year will include a line item for catching an asteroid and placing it in orbit around the moon. The budget is expected to be released later this week. There’s speculation that this proposal is in response to the recent realization by many that Earth is vulnerable to strikes from asteroids. This realization followed the February 15, 2013 asteroid explosion in the atmosphere over Russia on the same day that a second asteroid, traveling from a different direction in space, passed closer to Earth than some communications satellites.

A statement from the office of Florida Senator Bill Nelson said:

“In a nutshell, the plan in NASA’s hands calls for catching an asteroid with a robotic spacecraft and towing it back toward Earth, where it would then be placed in a stable orbit around the moon.”

The idea is that would then travel to the asteroid where, the statement said:

“… there could be mining activities, research into ways of deflecting an asteroid from striking Earth and testing to develop technology for a trip to deep space and Mars.”

Nelson, who is chairman of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Science and Space, said this plan is similar to one suggested by experts at the California Institute of Technology last year. That plan proposed bringing a 500-ton asteroid closer to Earth. Obama supports NASA’s plan and is including about $100 million in his proposed budget to kick it off. Of course the real mission will be more like $2.6 billion.