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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Today In A Telescope ...

Within the past week, scientists have discovered a “brown dwarf” star literally hiding behind another slightly brighter star more than 75 million light years from Earth. Using observations from powerful telescopes in Hawaii, Canada, and France, this new star … designated CFBDSIR J1458+1013B … is roughly the size of Jupiter, slightly more bluish than a typical brown dwarf, and constitutes the first evidence ever found of a theoretical “spectral Y” star, a celestial object that hovers on the fence between being a star and a large exo-planet.

By definition, brown dwarf stars are small sub-stellar objects that over time have lost so much mass they can no longer sustain hydrogen fusion reactions in their cores like other main sequence stars. What makes this newest discovery so “cool,” however, is that astrophysicists and other stellar scientists believe that the temperature of the object is about 100 degrees … basically like a steaming hot cup of tea.

When I was barely a teenager, my older sister had the opportunity to take a trip to Mexico. My one older brother and I were so jealous that our parents coughed up exceptional Christmas gifts to shut us up. My brother received an electric guitar and amp from “Santa” … a gift he NEVER learned to play, I might add. And I received the telescope I had been begging for going on three years.

At its simplest, an optical telescope is a device that makes distant objects appear much, much closer. Using either lenses, mirrors, or a combination of both, a telescope collects and focuses some form of electromagnetic radiation (such as visible light) to enable a viewer to magnify the image of objects very far away using an eyepiece lens. Telescopes have been critical to astronomical research.

Working telescopes were first developed in the Netherlands in 1608. These used “refractors” or objective lenses to gather light. In 1668, Isaac Newton engineered the first practical “reflecting” telescope using mirrors to concentrate the light, thus correcting some aberrations caused by lenses. Technical advances in telescope design and engineering include the use of parabolic mirrors (1722), achromatic lenses (1733), silver-coated mirrors (1857), and aluminized mirrors (1932).

Since the early 20th century, scientists and engineers have developed telescopes that utilize other types or radiation and energy to study distant objects including ultraviolet, X-ray, infrared, radio, gamma rays, neutrinos (electrically neutral particles), and gravitational wave devices.

The telescope from my youth was manufactured by a company named Zhumell which is still a major player in this market segment. It was a reflector type with some motorized positioning instruments and a 114 mm aperture that allowed me to see some cool stuff. My “scope” was relatively easy to set up on its tripod but it was kind of heavy. My Dad helped me use it the first few times but then I got a little huffy and my stargazing became the solitary hobby I wanted.

During those first few weeks of scanning the heavens, I looked at the moon closely and studied bright Venus in the sky. But as an imaginative kid, Mars occupied most of my attention. Named after the Roman god of war, Mars is the fourth planet from the sun in our Solar System and thus the Earth’s “next-door neighbor.” It is sometimes referred to as the “Red Planet” because of large quantities of iron oxide on its surface that give the planet a reddish hue.

Mars is about half (53 percent) as large as the Earth with lighter gravity. Because it is 230 million miles from the sun (compared to Earth at 93 million miles), a Martian year is 686 days.

Like the other planets, it is estimated that Mars is around 4.6 billion years old. Mars has always been of great scientific interest, especially since its rotational period (days) and planetary tilt (causing seasons) are similar to those of Earth. In fact, the planet is believed to have been much more “Earth-like” millions of years ago. Mars is considered to be a “terrestrial” planet because of its thin atmosphere (95% carbon dioxide, 3% nitrogen, 1.6% argon and traces of oxygen, methane, and water). Mars has two permanent polar caps and great quantities of water ice beneath the surface, but the planet’s current low atmospheric pressure prevents any accumulations of liquid water to exist. Martian soil is slightly alkaline (pH of 8.3) and contains elements such as magnesium, sodium, sulfur, potassium, phosphorus, chlorine, and basic salts. Martian surface temperatures range from roughly -125° F to 23° F due in part to the thin atmosphere which encourages little heat transfer.

Mars has two moons … Phobos and Deimos … and boasts the highest mountains (Olympus Mons) and largest canyons (Valles Marineris) of any planet in the Solar System.

Dozens of probes have been sent to Mars by the U.S., the Soviet Union, Japan, and various European efforts through the European Space Agency (ESA). NASA’s Mariner 4 was the first spacecraft to successfully complete a fly-by of the planet in July of 1965. In 1971, Mariner 9 became the first space probe to orbit the Red Planet. Just weeks after this accomplishment, two Russian probes became the first to land on the Martian surface but ceased transmitting almost immediately.

The U.S. NASA Mars Exploration Program has launched 20 missions with 13 being successful. The Viking program launched two orbiters in 1975 which had successful Mars landings in 1976. Viking 1 and Viking 2 provided incredible data for six years and three years respectively. In the summer of 1997, the NASA Mars Pathfinder and its robotic exploration vehicle Sojourner landed on Mars and began collecting data and transmitting pictures. In January 2004, Mars “rovers” Spirit (MER-A) and Opportunity (MER-B) landed on Mars and began conducting important analytical tests on air and soil, providing conclusive evidence of the existence of liquid water in the planet’s past. And on May 25, 2008, the NASA Phoenix Mars lander touched down in the north polar region of Mars to gain better knowledge of the planet’s ice caps.

At this time, three orbiters (Odyssey, Express, and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter) and two rovers (Spirit and Opportunity) are still active on and above Mars. A projected launch window for November of this year will provide the necessary conditions for the launch of the Mars Science Laboratory, a faster and much more sophisticated exploration rover. Of course, no mission to date has ever acquired and then returned a sample of Mars to the Earth; scientists have had to rely on transmitted data as well as Martian meteorites. NASA administrators believe that a manned Mars mission will be feasible as early as 2037. The ESA has similar aspirations for between 2030 and 2035.

The planet Mars has been a part of the human mythos since the time of the ancient Egyptians who charted its course across the sky as early as 1534 B.C. Roman and Greek cultures used the masculine nature of the heavenly body to embody their “god of war.” Astronomers in the 19th century kept regular track of Mars with their telescopes, and in 1877, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli produced the first detailed maps of Mars.

For more than a century, a more active “Mars Fever” has permeated our culture. In 1899, noted inventor Nikola Tesla claimed to intercept repetitive radio signals originating from Mars. Around this same time, H.G. Wells fatalistic novel “The War of the Worlds” set in motion hundreds of similar fictional works and even prompted the eventual and incredible 1938 live broadcast by Orson Welles that many mistook for an actual news alert concerning a Martian invasion. In 1948, America was introduced to a friendlier extraterrestrial in the animated form of “Marvin the Martian” from Looney Tunes and Warner Brothers. And comic book enthusiasts were rewarded with “J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter,” a Supermanesque character first introduced by DC Comics in November 1955.

To this day, novels, TV dramatizations, and major film projects still play upon the age-old fascination with Mars. My personal suggestion for one of the best … read the “Mars Trilogy” by Kim Stanley Robinson for a truly wild and intricate Martian ride!!

Over the years, I have watched the developments of NASA and other cosmologists. Every meteor shower and shuttle mission and experiment on Mir has fascinated me. And lately there have been articles and Internet synopses pertaining to “dark matter,” a relatively new supernova, and even some planned experiments to attempt to “retro-engineer” the Martian atmosphere.

But what really has my “juices flowing” is the summer plans of a good friend. He and his partner are much more knowledgeable about the cosmos than I so along with a few of their friends, they are going to rent time on a “REAL” observatory telescope. How cool is that?!!

But I do have a plan of attack of my own … this Christmas, I am going to ask all of my relatives to combine their efforts and get me a telescope ($250 to $350 range) as a hybrid XMAS/birthday gift. By spring, I hope to have a “renewed” hobby and be totally obnoxious with the amount of “heavenly info” I have to share.

POINT OF RANT: Why can’t kids take better care of their toys?

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