A glimpse of the Eye of God, 650 light years away

(March 25, 2013) It’s that time of the year, when the trees explode in the skies above Rockwall and our school children in just about all grades begin studying the wonders of our Universe. Chances are better than 50/50 that if one of your children passed through the Rockwall ISD in the past decade, they have looked through one of my telescopes or listened to me drone on about the wonders of space.

In a powerful testimony to the inquisitive nature of our RISD students, one can see the curiosity in their eyes…..the  wonder, amazement, and sometimes puzzlement because they may be witnessing something that appears to conflict with something they have been told about how we got here.

There has never been a conflict between science and theology in any one of my classes because when questions of a theistic nature arise, I simply explain that I believe there are matters of the heart and matters of the mind.  My personal philosophy is that space science is an observational one whereas faith studies are based on one’s beliefs.  Under this paradigm, I have not ever experienced a conflict between my faith beliefs and science. Whatever works…right. The bottom line is that despite a few tough scrapes, I’ve been blessed with a wonderful family, multiple successful careers including 24-years serving our nation as a soldier, and an amazing, never-ending hobby that allows me to give back to society by inspiring young people to study the STEM disciplines.

Happy Easter everyone!  As a special bonus in this latest issue of AstroDad’s Universe, please enjoy the special image of The Eye of God, also known as the Helix Nebula or from the New General Catalog, NGC7293.  Capturing this image from my observatories at home and in Oklahoma was a really big deal because I knew I was hoeing some fairly untouched ground in space as very few of us have ever captured as much outer detail as seen in the image below.

Figure 1 The Eye of God, NGC7293, a Planetary Nebula, not at all a planet but a dying star belching out its chemical layers.This object lies 650 light-years away in the constellation of Aquarius and was discovered by Karl Ludwig Harding in 1824. Imaged by Max Corneau ©2012 from Atoka, OK and Rockwall, TX.

Like any thoughtful, logical and earnest outreach expert, I have to constantly seek new materials, topics and approaches. Recently I was invited to meet with a local PTA in the coming weeks at one of those wonderful PTA-organized science nights.  There have been too few of these in the past decade, but the ones I have participated in as a guest presenter have been excellent.

At the outset of writing this weeks’ column I was stranded on a dry lake bed without any cool story to tell or activity with which to engage the parents. All along, the activity was there, once again Roving Mars as my friend and amazing planetary scientist, Dr. Steve Squyres titled his book….the one about how he built the two Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity.  So I’m no longer stuck without a really cool new idea or approach because we have an amazing science laboratory, powered by a nuclear generator, operating on another planet, the red one, Mars. I knew that if I stepped away from the problem it would come to me.  In fact, my prediction was prefaced by writing the following last week, “in any given ISD there are so few parents who ever lift a finger for their local school districts, having to come up with an idea to support a parent meeting means that we have an engaged, interested group of parents taking personal responsibility for their childrens’ education.  So this is not such a terrible problem to have and I’m certain that a great lightbulb will self-illuminate above my head in the near future (I’ll have a bright idea and am not worried).”  And so it was that the idea came to me.

You see, Dr. John Grotzinger and the amazing team at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) (Full disclosure, this year represents my decadal anniversary as a JPL Solar System Ambassador so I really think that lab at Cal-Tech is a cool place) developed and are now operating the Mars Science Lab aka “Curiosity” on the surface of Mars.

Having already written extensively about the MSL in this media space, I’ll not repeat myself. However, it’s time to review the amazing feats this not-so-little rover is performing on a dry, deadly planet 14-light minutes away.  All the children who have sat through one of my lectures knows of my fondness for expressing distances in terms of time when we deal with space….space is such a big place that it has to be expressed in terms of time or you lose your place in the book.

So we’re operating a lab that’s so far away that it takes a full 14 minutes for us to transmit a signal until the Rover receives it and executes the command. Round trip message time is nearly a half hour….that’s one full Doug (When our kids were little and we carried the VCR into the minivan, strapping it to the milk crate, they watched the cartoon Doug, so when they asked how long until we get there, or stop for nature, the reply was in a number of  Doug episodes or “Dougs” .  Perhaps not ironically, one of those children is now in his first job as an adult, engineering and building America’s next human rated space capsule that will carry seven astronauts to and from the Space Station and later….to other places in the solar system.

According to the NASA website http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/missions/profile.cfm?InFlight=1&MCode=MarsSciLab

During its 23-month prime mission, Curiosity will analyze dozens of samples drilled from rocks or scooped from the ground as it explores with greater range than any previous Mars rover. This rover’s mission is a very difficult one because we know that Mars will not give up its secrets about past life easily.  My friend, the astronaut Tom Jones (not the singer) believes that we may not find out much about life on other planets until we set human feet and unleash the complex intelligence of a human explorer to investigate the land. So the Mars Science Lab is there to look back in time on Mars to find clues in the rocks about possible past life.  This means that it engages long range and high resolution cameras to find target rocks, then travels to them and performs any number of investigative tasks as we would conduct in any Earthly laboratory.  It works!

Fourteen days ago just down the road in The Woodlands near Houston, the rover’s science team announced that analysis of powder from a drilled mudstone rock on Mars indicates past environmental conditions that were favorable for microbial life. Additional findings presented  on March 18 at a news briefing at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas, suggest those conditions extended beyond the site of the drilling.

Figure 2 Hydration Map, Based on Mastcam Spectra, for 'Knorr' Rock. An image of the rock target "Knorr," with color coding that shows the amount of mineral hydration indicated by a ratio of near-infrared reflectance intensities measured by the Mast Camera (Mastcam). Notice the blue trails with little red beads. These indicate where the water flowed.

This discovery actually did make the national news that night for less than a minute of time, but it’s significance to the public at large faded rapidly in the context of the 24-hour infosphere that includes the human fetish of celebrity following.  Sorry to say, I’m disgusted by the attention paid to people who get paid vast sums to engage in sports or games, or the people who memorize scripts and repeat them to a camera.  Sorry to say that I believe the true heroes in our society, besides the men and women of our military and public safety are the scientists who work for peanuts in a never-ending struggle to find the truth about our species, where we came from and maybe what else is out there for us to inhabit.

To recap, Curiosity’s accomplishments: Curiosity landed safely on Mars and is busy studying the rocks and soil at Gale crater. Its first success was the use of a new sky crane landing procedure to deliver the car-sized rover to the surface with unprecedented precision.

In astronomical news, my favorite adventurer was said to have passed out of our solar system by scientists this week. In non-astronomical news, this is about the 10th different report over the years extolling the depths to which the Voyager I and II have traveled. It’s true, the twin Voyagers, launched by NASA’s JPL in August and September of 1977 and spent more than 11 years exploring the likes of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune before officially heading off toward interstellar space in 1989. In my world/spaceview, the real mission of the Voyagers (contradicting a Star Trek episode – the original star trek, I’m not a trekkie, have never recorded an episode and don’t bother with the new stuff, oh and I saw the Canadian citizen who played Captain Kirk treat a trio of U.S. Marines just back from the hells of Fallujah in 2004 and will never, ever watch another thing he does for he’s a mean and awful person who mistreated American fighting men.)…returning to the main point, the latest and final Voyager mission began on the first day of 1990 when they commenced their “Interstellar Mission” to truly Voyage where no other human object has ever ventured. One month later, we were given “Portrait of the Solar System” the final images sent back to JPL by the Voyagers as they left us. Eight years later Voyager 1 became the most distant human object and fourteen years later it crossed the Termination Shock, the area where the Sun’s direct influence falls. In this image, we can place these twins in context of our Solar System. Note how tiny the ships are and how  tiny is their route….though they represent the most distant human made object in the history of our species.

Max Corneau, aka AstroDad, of Rockwall

Our Universe Today is a column written by Blue Ribbon News special contributor, Max Corneau, aka AstroDad, of Rockwall.

Max retired from the U.S. Army in 2009 as a Lieutenant Colonel, Senior Space Operations Officer and Master Aviator.  He amassed over 3,200 hours as a pilot of Special Electronic Mission Airplanes.  Since 2004 he has been a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador, is a Master of Astronomical Outreach through the Astronomcial League and built his own astronomical observatory. His amazing images can be seen at AstroDad.com.


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AstroDad reflects on history’s mysteries in space

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How to buy a telescope: Part 1 and Part 2

Earth’s recent asteroid encounter is closest in 200 years

To submit your news and events or a guest column on your area of expertise, email editor@BlueRibbonNews.com.