Curiosity Rover team enjoys tangible evidence of accomplishment

Curiosity’s tracks seen from about 186 miles up through the eye of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s camera. The two dark, bluish patches were created when the descent stage blew away the lighter-colored surface dust. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/U. of Ariz.

Who doesn’t like to look back at their freshly-mowed lawn and feel a sense of accomplishment at completing the task? We all like tangible reminders of progress. NASA’s mission controllers and engineers are no different. After seeing photos of the Curiosity Rover’s tracks in the Martian dust taken by the orbiting Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), high-fives went around the room. 358 feet of pure squiggly beauty!

Curiosity is headed toward the rocks and soil of Glenelg to investigate terrain that may once have been soaked with water. Notice the dogleg – it was done to skirt sands that could potentially mire the robot. We don’t a repeat of what happened to the Spirit Rover, especially this early in the game.

Enhanced color view by MRO of the sky crane descent stage impact. The main crash is at right while other dark spots are thought be secondary impacts from flying debris.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Other new photos released include more detailed color views by MRO of the impacts of the parachute and sky crane that delivered the rover to the surface. Judging by the asymmetric pattern, the crane must have struck the ground at a shallow angle.

You can see amazing detail in the parachute in this photo that also shows the backshell. The backshell kicked up darker material from beneath the ground when it hit. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Most craters or impacts are surrounded by an apron of impact debris arrayed in a circular or radial pattern. As long as the angle of the object hitting the ground is 45 degrees from the horizontal or greater, that’s what you get. Once the angle drops below 45, the debris gets stretched out or elongated in the direction of motion. Below 15 degrees, the ejected material is not only stretched out behind the impact, but no material appears in front (uprange) of the impact.

Navcam photo of Curiosity’s tracks as it heads toward Glenelg. You can almost hear the gritty crunch of wheels on gravel. I like how the rocks are pressed into the Martian soil by the rover’s weight. Click image for more photos. Credit: NASA

Morning Jupiter-moon conjunction has its surprises

Jupiter (left) and the moon through a small telescope this morning around 6 a.m. If you look closely you can see four of the planet’s moon – three below and one above. To properly expose Jupiter’s moons I had to overexpose our own moon. Details: 1/4″ exposure at ISO 400. Photo: Bob King

Even though you can use software to predict and picture something like Jupiter and the moon squaring up this morning, seeing it is quite a different experience. They were just, well, so tight and so bright together. It’s been a while since we’ve had such a close conjunction of the moon and a bright planet visible from North America.

I trained a small 4-inch refracting telescope on the pair and enjoyed the extreme contrast in their textures and colors. First the moon: all edgy with craters and long shadows and the color of an old photograph. Creamy Jupiter with its sleak belts looked airbrushed in contrast.

Jupiter sits atop the last quarter moon in morning twilight today Saturday September 8. Photo: Bob King

Another unexpected aspect of the conjunction was seeing how fast the moon moved. Jupiter stood directly above (north) of the moon at 6 a.m. (CDT), but a half hour later, I could plainly see that the two were slightly “out of alignment”.

While the planet faded in a bluing sky, it was still easily visible with the naked eye at sunrise.

Matter of fact, if you’re reading this now and missed the conjunction, you can still see it this morning in broad daylight. Point your binoculars at the moon high in the southwestern sky, and use the illustration from yesterday’s blog. I just spotted it in my pair of 8 x 40s at 9:30 today; Jupiter was quite easy and looked like a pale white dot. For those of you who got up early to see the conjunction, I hope you feel compensated for your lost pillow time.

Moon and Jupiter oh so close tonight

Jupiter and the moon will make a stunning pair when they rise together late tonight.  The map shows them at 12:30 a.m. local time but they rise around 11 p.m. Maps created with Stellarium

Get ready for a really fine  conjunction of the moon and Jupiter overnight. There are at least three different times and ways to view it.  If you’re out around midnight tonight, you’ll see the last quarter moon rise right alongside brilliant Jupiter in the northeast. The two will be only about 2 degrees apart and make an eye-catching sight.

The later you’re up, the closer they’ll draw together. Jupiter remains nearly stationery in the sky overnight since it’s so far away, but the nearby moon moves along much more quickly. It will creep closer to the planet during the night until the two are only 0.6 degrees apart at 6 a.m. (CDT) tomorrow morning.

These are binocular views of Jupiter and the moon. They’ll be closest together around 6 a.m. Saturday morning. The Roman numerals represent Jupiter’s moons: I = Io, II = Europa, III = Ganymede and IV = Callisto. Europa and Ganymede are close together and appear as one in the diagram. All times are CDT.

If you’re out in morning twilight before sunrise, the duo will be high in the south and separated by little more than one moon diameter. They’ll make an awesome sight. Low power telescopes will be able to easily squeeze both Luna and Jupiter in the same field of view. As a bonus, all four of Jupiter’s brightest moons will be strung out like pearls on either side of the planet.

Here’s a wide view of the conjunction facing southeast about an hour before sunrise. Because of the map scale, Jupiter and the moon appear to be touching. They’ll still be about one moon diameter apart – very close.

For those who can’t fathom getting up at those hours, the moon will still by high in the southwestern sky around 9 a.m. Hopefully you’ll be out of your pajamas by then. Point your binoculars at the moon and see if you can spot Jupiter about 1.5 degrees to its right. The planet will look like a tiny spark of a star. Use the picture in the panel above to help you look in the right spot.

European and African observers will see the two close together but not quite as tight as folks in North and South America. And if you’re reading this from about latitude 35 degrees south of the equator, you’ll see the moon actually cover up Jupiter. Any way you cut it, you might want to try photographing the lineup. Dawn’s best and easiest for making brief time exposures in a deep blue sky.

Dawn probe departs Vesta, shoves off for Ceres

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, which has been in orbit around the asteroid Vesta since mid-July 2011, left Vesta this week to fly to its next target, the dwarf planet Ceres.  Photo: Bob King / Vesta image: NASA

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft departed the asteroid Vesta early yesterday morning en route to a rendezvous with the carbon-rich dwarf planet Ceres in early 2015. The probe quietly entered into orbit around Vesta last July and began mapping its surface in great detail. Before the mission, the best photos we had resolved only the largest feature on the little world, the 310-mile-wide impact crater named Rheasilvia Basin. Now we have 31,000 photos of cliffs, basins and the tiniest of craters just meters across. Other instruments measured the elements in the rocks below, the composition of minerals in the crust and looked for signs of water. Scientists used Dawn’s radio antenna in combination with antennas on Earth to probe the protoplanet’s interior.

Artist’s view of Vesta showing its 136-mile-wide iron core in brown, the mantle in green and crust in gray. Vesta is “differentiated” or layered in composition just like the inner planets. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

As the craft slowly spiraled away from Vesta, it took a final set of pictures showing its north polar region, which has been in shadow until recently. So what did we learn during our sojourn around this distant world?

* That Vesta is very much like a planet with a crust, mantle and iron core. Scientists estimate Vesta’s core at 136 miles in diameter. Vesta melted billions of years ago just like the Earth, Mars and other rocky planets. Iron trickled down to make the core while the lighter elements floated to the top to form a crust.

Vesta’s two biggest hits – the Rheasilvia and Veneneia impact basins. The map is color-coded by elevation with red highest and blue lowest. Rheasilvia is about a billion years old; Veneneia happened 2 billion years ago. Credit: NASA

* Dawn revealed Vesta’s giant Rheasilvia impact basin at its south pole in detail, showing that the asteroid impact that created it was powerful enough to launch chunks of Vesta’s crust into space. Scientists called the debris “vestoids”.

Some of the material was nudged by Jupiter’s powerful gravity into orbits that eventually sent pieces to Earth as meteorites millions of years later.

* The clan of meteorites from Vesta are called HED (Howardite-eucrite-diogenite) meteorites and have the same composition as the asteroid’s surface, confirming that they originated there. Vesta joins Mars and the moon as the only other solar system body we know we have samples or right here on Earth. (Bits of Vesta are available through a variety of meteorite dealers’ websites. E-mail me for recommendations if interested.)

Three slices of meteorites that fell to Earth that Dawn has confirmed as originating from the giant asteroid Vesta. The meteorites, known as howardite, eucrite and diogenite meteorites, are seen through a polarizing microscope, where different minerals appear in different colors. Credit: University of Tennessee

* Devoid of smooth plains and lava flows, Vesta shows no signs of the volcanic activity that must have been present in its early history when the asteroid was still molten. Scientists suspect activity must have shut down early in its history – perhaps within the first 100 million years. Since then, meteorites have pulverized the surface and obliterated any evidence. Craters pock the crust everywhere you look.

* The blows that created the two largest impact scars, Rheasilvia and the newly discovered Veneneia Basin (250 miles across), reverberated through the asteroid to create a sprawling network of nearly parallel troughs hundreds of miles long stripping Vesta’s equator. Any more force and the asteroid would have been blown apart.

* Vesta has the tallest mountain discovered to date in the solar system – a 14-mile-high peak formed by rebound after the impact that blasted out the giant Rheasilvia basin. That’s more than twice the height of Mt. Everest.

Craters, craters, everywhere, including a dark splat that may have been from a carbon-rich meteorite strike. Either that or the impact excavated darker material from beneath the surface. Credit: NASA/ JPL-Caltech

Both Vesta and Ceres are currently visible in the constellation Taurus in the pre-dawn sky. Later this fall, when they’ll both be bright enough to be easily viewable in binoculars at a more convenient hour, I’ll prepare maps for you to find them. In the meantime, you can browse a gallery of Vesta photos and learn a lot about this almost-planet by reading the accompanying captions.

Pixel planet is home sweet home

Voyager 1 celebrates its 35th year in space today. The probe was 3.7 billion miles from Earth and 32 degrees above the plane of the solar system when it took this photo in 1990. Earth is only 0.12 pixels wide. The fuzzy light in the images is scattered sunlight because Earth was very close to the Sun as seen from Voyager the same way Mercury appears close to the sun from Earth. Credit: NASA

This is one of my very favorite photos. Earth is tiny – less than a pixel wide – and looks so tentative as if any moment it might disappear in the reflective glare of the sun. It was taken on February 14, 1990 at the end of its primary mission from 3.7 billion miles miles away. NASA mission controllers commanded the probe to spin around and take a family portrait of the solar system.

Voyager’s wide-angle view showing the overexposed sun. The inset photos are photos of the Earth and Venus taken with the narrow-angle lens. Credit: NASA

Carl Sagan, planetary astronomer and creator of the inspirational Cosmos TV series, made the suggestion. Here’s what he had to say about the picture. It recalls Apollo astronaut Neil Armstrong’s vision of Earth:

“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

Both Voyager 1 and its sister probe Voyager 2 are located in the heliosheath near the boundary between interstellar and solar space called the heliopause. The wind of particles constantly streaming from the sun creates a vast bubble of solar influence called the heliosphere. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Voyager 1 left the Earth 35 years ago today on September 4, 1977 and took our eyes all the way to Jupiter, Saturn and beyond. Today it’s 11.3 billion miles from home near the edge of the solar system, still within the cocoon of the sun’s influence but just barely. Within the next year or two the probe will sail through the heliopause or boundary of the solar system and into interstellar space.

In May this year Voyager 1 detected an increase in cosmic rays from outside the sun’s realm, a sure sign it’s close to leaving the solar womb. These high-speed particles cut loose during explosive events like supernovae and bound around the galaxy until zipping through the heliopause and heading for Earth. They collide with atoms in the rarefied upper atmosphere and create showers of small, secondary particles that head toward the ground. Only a small number of those ever make it down that far, but they and ones further up are responsible for a portion of our planet’s natural background radiation.

Artist’s concept of the two Van Allen radiation belts with Earth nestled at their center. The belts, which extend up the way up to 65 degrees north and south latitudes, contain high-energy protons and electrons, many of which originate from the sun. The blue and red arcs indicate north and south magnetic polarities. Credit: T. Benesch and J. Carns for the NASA Science Mission Directorate

While we’re on the topic of radiation, NASA recently launched the twin Radiation Belt Storm Probes into Earth’s Van Allen radiation belts last Thursday. The belts are two donut-shaped regions filled with high energy particles that surround the Earth. Most of the particles stream in from the sun and get trapped by the planet’s magnetic field. The inner belt, a mix of protons and electrons, can reach down as low as 600 miles; the outer belt is filled with fast-moving electrons and extends outward some 37,000 miles from the surface of Earth.

James Van Allen (center) along with rocket scientists William Pickering (left) and Wernher von Braun hold a model of the Explorer 1 satellite, which was launched on January 31, 1958. Credit: NASA

No one knew about any of this activity before 1958. That’s when the U.S. successfully launched Explorer 1, our country’s first satellite. James Van Allen, a space scientist at the University of Iowa, insisted that a Geiger counter be placed on board to measure cosmic rays in space. He got his way and the counter shot off the scale as it orbited the Earth.

Space scientists came to realize through this and subsequent satellite missions that the “empty” space near our planet was buzzing with activity. The belts were named after their discoverer.

The Radiation Belt Storm probes are identical craft that will fly in separate orbits through the inner and outer Van Allen belts. Since most of the subatomic particles there arrived from the sun, solar activity causes all kinds of interesting fluctuations in the belts. Sometimes they’re chalk full of electrons and can affect satellite electronics; other times the belts are nearly empty and quiet. The probes will sample magnetic and electrical fields in the belts and count how many and what kinds of particles are flying around up there. Scientists hope the data will help better predict space weather which includes things like northern lights. Stay tuned.

Aurora in progress NOW Tuesday Sept. 4

A bright arc that appeared very green to the naked eye sprouts amazing red rays of aurora at 9:25 p.m. (CDT) this evening seen from Duluth, Minn. No re-touching was done to the photo. The rays’ color was too faint to see with the eye, but the camera’s time exposure recorded them well. Photo: Bob King

The aurora’s back! Nothing at 9:15 p.m. but at 9:20 p.m. (CDT) a big green arc suddenly lit the north. I thought it was moonrise but the glow was far too sudden. Ten minutes later multiple arcs of emerald-hued light punctuated by several tall faint rays covered more than half the northern sky. If you’ve got clear skies and a good view to the north, take a look right now. Let’s hope they last. Happy aurora hunting!

Layered green arcs and a few faint rays show about five minutes after the top photo was taken. Details: 17mm lens at f/2.8, ISO 800 and 25-second exposure.  Photo: Bob King

UPDATE 10:05 p.m. — Good lord! As quickly as they arrived, the northern lights have vanished. I searched with the camera a few minutes ago and there was nothing to be seen. Moonlight’s back but not strong. FYI – the Kp index shot up to “6″ at 10 p.m. That translates to a moderate storm with auroras visible into New York and Idaho. Anyone else see this? Time to head back outside.

The satellite map showing the extent of the aurora oval at 9:39 p.m. (CDT).  Its edge grazes northern Minnesota.

Travel through time with the Summer Triangle

Aurora over Finland last night photographed by Ole Solomonsen

Always comes down to timing, doesn’t it?  Most of us never saw the auroras that arrived yesterday in the wake of last week’s solar eruption. They happened alright, but the show didn’t start until after sunrise and continued through daylight hours for North America. Siberians and Scandinavians were luckier. They had dark skies at the right time and got a real treat.

“After hours of waiting for the big aurora to show from the CME, and waiting for clouds to go away, I was about to give up. Then suddenly a spark on the horizon, which just grew, and grew and grew!”, wrote Ole Salomonsen who watched a beautiful aurora borealis unfold overhead from deep within a forest in northern Finland.

By the time darkness arrived in the U.S. Midwest, the northern lights had run out of steam. I looked – maybe you did too – but it was a no-show through midnight. Don’t give up! There’s still a chance tonight plus more goodies from the sun are on the way. NOAA space forecasters predict additional CME (coronal mass ejection) blasts both tomorrow and Thursday.

The brightest stars in the constellations Lyra (the Harp), Cygnus (the Swan) and Aquila (the Eagle) form a huge asterism in the sky called the Summer Triangle. Instead of distances, I’ve labeled the stars with the year the light you see tonight left each one. Created with Stellarium

One of late summer’s little astronomy joys is lying on your back and looking straight up at the Summer Triangle. You can do this with ease in early September when the three bright stars that form the triangle – Vega, Deneb and Altair – are due south as soon as the sky gets dark. Now tuck your hands back behind your head and join me for some time travel.

It takes just over 8 minutes for sunlight to travel the 150 million kilometers (93 million miles) to Earth. Credit: Wiki

Whenever we gaze at a celestial object we’re looking back in time. Even traveling at the unimaginable speed of 186,000 miles per second, light from distant objects takes time to reach our eyes. Moonlight needs 1 1/4 seconds old to get to Earth while sunlight takes just over 8 minutes. We might as well be watching a time-delayed TV program when we look up at the night sky.

Mars is 15 minutes away by light and the nearest star beyond the sun, Alpha Centauri, is 4.4 light years away. The light we see tonight departed its fiery surface in early 2008. No doubt about it – the stars are time machines of the imagination.

Cygnus the Swan and Lyra the Harp as seen from a mythological point of view. Credit: Urania’s Mirror

Let’s return to the Summer Triangle. Vega is almost directly overhead and a little off to the right (west) when darkness falls. It’s bright not only because it’s intrinsically luminous but also because it’s only 25 light years away. We see it as it shone in 1987 when a gallon of gas in the U.S. cost 89 cents, the home computer revolution was just getting underway and there were 5 billion humans on the planet. Today that number is over 7 billion.

Shifting your gaze to Deneb in the Northern Cross  – formally known as Cygnus the Swan – we peer much further back in time. Deneb is an extremely large and bright star, the reason it’s still a standout despite its whopping distance of 1,425 light years. That takes us to 587 A.D. when the Polynesian peoples first settled Hawaii and Tahiti. Europe was still dealing with deadly plagues in the 6th century while the Visigoth king in Spain converted to Christianity. It was a time of continuing conquests and wars following the end of the Roman Empire. So long ago, yet Deneb’s twinkle tweaks them back to life.

Altair sits near the head of Aquila (AK-will-uh) the Eagle. Credit: Urania’s Mirror

Altair lies at the base of the Summer Triangle and offers only a 17-year hop into the past. What were you doing in 1995 when there was no International Space Station to watch pass overhead at night?

Back then the brightest satellite was the Russian Mir space station, and we looked forward to its regular sweeps across the northern sky. On TV you’d see a lot of President Clinton and nearly as much of the O.J. Simpson trial.

Care to go back further back? The center star in the Cross, an easy naked-eye star called Gamma Cygni, is 1,800 light years from Earth, taking us back to 212 A.D., when the Chinese were inventing gunpowder and Emperor Elagabagus instituted sun worship in the Roman empire.

Since stars serve as such useful markers of our past, why not mix a little constellation study with history in the schools? Thanks to tireless efforts by astronomers and more recent measurements by the Hipparcos Space Astrometry Mission, we know the distances and look-back times of thousands of stars.  These tiny lights serve as reminders of  humanity’s long journey to the present.

Adah the cat caught licking the looking glass

Adah takes a lick of Richie Townsend’s telescope mirror during its final rinse. Credit: Richie Townsend

This sweet photo makes me cringe and laugh at the same time. Amateur astronomer Richie Townsend of Duluth, Minn. was cleaning his 8-inch telescope mirror when his cat Adah walked up, saw her reflection and started licking away. Look closely and you’ll see a water film on the mirror. How could she resist a few licks off that silvery surface?

“I was nearly finished with the final rinse,” said Townsend. “Her “help” only required a small extra swipe with a cloth.”

Telescope mirror surfaces are ground to an accuracy of about one-millionth of an inch and coated on their front surface by a thin film of highly-reflective aluminum. They’re different from everyday mirrors, which are coated on the backside. Good thing. If a bathroom mirror were aluminized on the front side, you’d soon damage the coating after a few cleanings with Windex. Astronomical mirrors are coated on the front side to prevent precious light rays from being absorbed by a layer of glass.

Technicians inspect the 94-inch Hubble Space Telescope main mirror. Reflecting telescopes use mirrors like this one to gather light from distant stars and galaxies. The mirror’s surface is ground into a gentle curve called a parabola which allows light reflected off the mirror to come to focus in an image. An eyepiece magnifies the image for viewing. Credit: NASA

Aluminum coatings are still soft and vulnerable to scratching during the occasional cleanings they require. That’s why telescope mirror manufactures apply an additional overcoat of transparent silicon dioxide (silica). Silica is commonly found in nature as sand and quartz. The overcoat is tough enough to allow for gentle, infrequent cleanings.

A friend pointed out it was a good thing Adah didn’t cough up a hairball. Good thing indeed. Acids and salts can slowly eat away at mirror coatings. You might be surprised (or not) to know that acid, as in acid rain, is also found in dew. Repeating dewings of telescope mirrors on damp nights will slowly etch and flake coatings. Salty air near the oceans is no friend of mirrors either. It costs about $70 to re-coat a typical 8-inch telescope mirror.

That’s why amateur and professional astronomers alike baby their mirrors, trying to find a balance between overcleaning and keeping them dew-free. I’ve got a low-wattage light bulb rigged up under my main telescope mirror to keep it warm overnight so no dew can form. I unplug the light and let the mirror cool down before using the scope at night.

How a reflecting telescope works. Light enters the tube and strikes the main mirror, which directs the beam back up the tube to an angled flat mirror called the diagonal. The diagonal reflects the beam into an eyepiece which magnifies and focuses the image. Credit:

Back in the early days of reflecting telescopes – those that use mirrors to gather and focus light from the stars – mirrors were made of a polished metal called speculum, a brittle alloy of copper and tin that tarnished quickly. Modern mirrors are made of Pyrex or plate glass and coated with aluminum in a special vacuum chamber. Over time, all coatings will tarnish and need to be stripped and replaced. Perhaps if we could gather enough cats, they would prove useful in the stripping process.

Henri 2, Paw de Deux

If you’re interested in how mirrors are coated, check out this well-illustrated article on how the 200-inch Palomar telescope gets its periodic re-aluminizing. And if you like cats  and humor, you must click on the existentialist cat video.

Auroras possible tonight through Monday Sept. 2-3

A spectacular blast from the sun occurred Friday afternoon August 31. Material from the event will reach the Earth later tonight and may spark auroras. The photo was taken with the coronagraph – an instrument that blocks direct sunlight with a special disk. Credit: NASA/ESA

I had a sneaky feeling that if I wrote about expectations for the current solar cycle, auroras might return. Time to keep a look-out. They may be out as soon as tonight through tomorrow evening. A large filament of hot gas hovering in the sun’s atmosphere on August 31 became unstable and erupted, producing a flare and strong CME (coronal mass ejection). Visually it was one of the most dramatic blasts I’ve ever seen. A beastly-looking thing. The photo and video tell the story.

Wonderful video of the filament blasting off from the sun taken in UV light.

Material from the explosion wasn’t aimed directly at Earth – you can see much of it blasting off to the sun’s left side – but NOAA space weather forecasters predict it will graze the planet sometime tonight through tomorrow night. Those living at polar latitudes may well see a full bore storm; auroras are also possible for the northern U.S. and southern Canada. As of 8:45 p.m. tonight (CDT) the Kp index, an indicator of magnetic activity high overhead, has clicked up to “4″ – just below minor storm level. When it hits “5″ and the indicator bar is red, it’s worth pulling the curtain back to see if the aurora’s dancing around in the northern sky.

Mini-donuts vs. the craters of the moon

The Blue Moon sets into the sunny tops of the Sierra Nevada mountains yesterday morning. This stunning image was made by Andrew Kirk of Bishop, California while out running.

As if to escape all the attention it’s been getting as a Blue Moon, the moon last night was anything but blue. It rose a deep red and remained orange for a long time in the hazy air. Members of our local astronomy club, the Arrowhead Astronomical Society, gather on weekends in Duluth’s Canal Park – a great place to see ships come and go on Lake Superior –  whenever the weather’s nice and there’s interesting stuff to show the public.

William Wiethoff with the Arrowhead Astronomical Society shows the moon to passersby last night in Duluth’s Canal Park. The city’s iconic Aerial Lift Bridge glows in the background. Photo: Bob King

Last night was perfect with an inviting moon and a great crowd. Will Wiethoff and Richie Townsend set up their scopes and invited passersby to stop for a look. The smell of deep-fried mini-donuts and cheese curds wafted from nearby Crabby Bill’s as people lined up for a look at lunar craters like Tycho and Copernicus.

Megan Gillogly of Chicago looks at the moon through a telescope last night. “I’m amazed every time I look up at the stars,” she said. “They reveal the beauty of our creator and are proof that our God is awesome.” Photo: Bob King

There were at least several jokes about seeing the flag on the moon. When I explained that the Lunar Reconniassance Orbiter had taken the very first pictures of the flag this year, one fellow was incredulous. He thought that much of what the astronauts left on the moon had eroded away. So we talked about how the lack of an atmosphere and liquid water slows the erosion process down, preserving the Apollo artifacts for millions of years to come.

Joe Sandor of Chicago (originally of Superior, Wis.) shows off the first picture of the moon he took with his cellphone through a club member’s telescope. Photo: Bob King

Anyway, I took a few photos of the scene I thought you might enjoy. Public outreach in astronomy gives both ways. People love looking at the moon and planets, and the amateur astronomers that share their time and expertise get to enjoy the public’s reaction to the what they in the scope.

It’s also fun to field questions and hear opinions about this and that in the cosmos. These exchanges help me better understand what role science plays in their lives.

Richie Townsend (right), with the Arrowhead Astronomical Society, lines up the scope so another passerby can take a look at the moon. Photo: Bob King


Brothers Anthony (left) and Alex Granquist of Eagan, Minn. stand on the rocks under the moon in Canal Park as their towels billow in the breeze last night. The boys like the planets. Anthony’s favorite is the Earth; Alex prefers Saturn. Photo: Bob King