Summer space highlights; NASA scores some victories.
Astronomers have announced that a tenth planet in our Solar System has been discovered. The object, known for now as '2003 UB313' is about one-and-a-half times the size of Pluto and is three times as far from the Sun than Pluto. The object was first photographed by the 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope on October 31, 2003 at the Palomar Observatory. Mike Brown, a professor of planetary astronomy at Caltech, made the announcement during a NASA teleconference on the evening of July 29th. The announcement was hastened due to the fact that someone had hacked into Brown's website and stole the data relating to the new discovery.
While the data analysis continues, the flames of an old debate have been stoked by this discovery. Is '2003 UB313' really a planet after all? Even if it is larger than Pluto, the object's orbit is highly eccentric--its orbit is inclined at 45 degrees from the plane of the Solar System. Looking at the Solar System from edge on, its orbit would appear to rise and dip below the orbit of our current set of nine planets. Many astronomers view the new object, and several other distant Solar System objects recently discovered, as merely members of the Kuiper Belt, which is a large cloud of small frozen objects located at the far reaches of the Solar System. Some astronomers believe that Pluto isn't a planet at all, but a Kuiper Belt object captured by Neptune's gravitational pull.
Currently there is no definition of what a planet is. The debate will rage on. In the meantime, Brown and his team have submitted a proposal to the International Astronomical Union to give '2003 UB313' a real name, "Xena".
Shuttle Returns to Flight--A Few Glitches
On Tuesday, July 29th, the Space Shuttle Discovery returned to space after the Shuttle program had been grounded for almost three years. After multiple delays, the 7-person crew blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center at 10:39 am., right on time. STS-114 commander Eileen Collins spoke to reporters before the flight, saying, "We're very prepared." In addition to Commander Collins, the crew consists of pilot James Kelly, flight engineer Stephen Robinson, and mission specialists Andrew Thomas, Wendy Lawrence, Charles Camarda, and also Soichi Noguchi from the Japanese Aerospace and Exploration Agency. On Friday July 29th the Shuttle docked with the International Space Station and delivered an Italian-made pod filled with research equipment, food, and clothing.
Despite the exhilaration of the Shuttle's return to flight, familiar dark shadows have been tagging NASA for years. Upon launch, multiple pieces of foam broke off from the orbiter's external tank, including one piece more than two feet in size. Back in February 2003, Shuttle Discovery broke up upon reentry after a chunk of foam blasted a hole in its heat shield during launch.
Images of the shuttle taken during launch cannot confirm whether any foam struck the orbiter. Following this glitch the current Space Shuttle fleet has been grounded from any future launches until the problem of foam separation is fixed. Shuttle Atlantis, scheduled to fly in September, will not return to space until a solution is found. There are only three shuttles left including Discovery and Atlantis. Endeavor, the third and final shuttle, is currently undergoing the same safety modifications performed on Discovery and Atlantis. The Discovery crew performed spacewalks to inspect the orbiter's heat shield to verify any damage. No damage was apparent, and the shuttle landed safely back to Earth.
The current state of the Shuttle program and its continuing glitches furthers the speculation that a new space vehicle may be needed before future flights are attempted..
Deep Impact a Success
After Deep Impact's close encounter with Comet Tempel 1 on July 4th, scientists are excitedly sifting through preliminary data gathered during the fireworks. Deep Impact's 820-pound impactor, traveling at 23,000 mph, struck the comet at a 25-degree angle, yet still managed to create quite an explosion and a crater estimated to be 330 feet wide, a mere pockmark on the 7-mile wide comet. Early images taken of the comet show a crater-strewn surface, much like the surface of the moon. The comet itself appears to be too soft to be made of ice--once thought to be the primary ingredient of comets. A steamy mix of water, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide was also detected--clues that could shed light on the early composition of our Solar System. Many astronomers believe that comets provided the "seeds" for life on Earth over 4 billion years ago.
The data collected from the Deep Impact mission will need to be analyzed more thoroughly, and hopefully will shed some light on the origins of life on our world.
The Truth About Mars
At a recent doctor's appointment, my doctor struck up a conversation with me about the latest astronomy happenings. "And did you hear about Mars?" he asked me, "sometime in August Mars will appear as big as the full moon! And it will be the closest to Earth in any of our lifetimes!" This instantly struck me as dubious. Wasn't Mars the closest to Earth in August 2003--an event that would not happen again for thousands of years? Just two years later I'm hearing the "it-won't-happen-again-in-your-lifetime" speech.
The truth is, the latest Mars buzz is a hoax. From the perspective of our puny lifetimes, Mars passed closest to Earth in August of 2003. It will not appear as large as the Full Moon, both to the naked eye and through a telescope. I'm sorry to say, news about the brilliant apparition of Mars has come to the public eye two years too late. Mars and the Earth catch up to each other every couple of years or so, and the current meeting will be in October and November, not August. And Mars will appear to be about 20 arcseconds in diameter--much less than the full Moon which measures 30 arcminutes across. Mars still, and always will, appear as a very bright star in the sky.
I hope this has cleared up some confusion! I'm sorry stories like this hit the e-mail lists and then gain momentum to become an incomprehensible urban legend, giving the public a false view of astronomy and at the same time desensitizing their curiosity about the cosmos.
Stay tuned for more science updates from your friendly neighborhood space enthusiast. In the meantime, keep looking up!