Astronomy and Human Spaceflight: Three reasons to get excited

I’ve been interested in astronomy and human spaceflight for as long as I can remember. The end of 2014 is shaping up to be an monumental time in the history of astronomy and spaceflight for at least three reasons:

1. We landed on a comet..and we’re continuing to explore that comet

Like millions of people all over the world, I was blown away by the fact that Philae successfully landed on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Although the landing did not occur exactly as planned, it was still a remarkable feat and we will likely learn a lot from the data that were collected. Landing on a comet is certainly an exciting event, bringing to mind scenes from a number of science fiction books, television shows, and movies, but I think it is also important to remember that the Rosetta mission is far from over. Rosetta will continue to gather important data as the comet moves closer to the Sun, giving us a first hand look at how a comet changes as it heats up.  On December 2, 2014, Rosetta used its NavCam to take a series of pictures of the comet from about 30km away. The composite image is below:

(Image credits: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0)

2. The launch of the Orion Spacecraft

I loved every minute of each of my visits to the Kennedy Space Center. I marveled at the beautiful flying machines that have done everything from send Alan Shepard up on a 15-minute sub-orbital flight (Freedom 7, Project Mercury, to successfully rendezvous in Earth Orbit (Gemini 6A and 7, Project Gemini) to, of course, take astronauts to the moon. I enjoyed seeing the tour of the launch facilities and, although I’ve never seen the launch of a spacecraft, I did get to see a Shuttle on the launchpad. As impressive as the machines are, though, it is the commitment and creativity of the women and men involved with the space program that has made the deepest impression on me.

Yet I also recall feeling tinges of sadness after each visit due to the fact that I had no idea what was “next” for human spaceflight. The shuttle program was quite old by the time I made it to the Kennedy Space Center and I wondered what the next grand vision would be.  Today (December 5, 2014), we were treated to one part of the vision:

From NASA:

NASA’s Orion spacecraft is built to take humans farther than they’ve ever gone before. Orion will serve as the exploration vehicle that will carry the crew to space, provide emergency abort capability, sustain the crew during the space travel, and provide safe re-entry from deep space return velocities.

On December 5, 2014, Orion launched atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex Flight Test on the Orion Flight Test: a two-orbit, four-hour flight that tested many of the systems most critical to safety.

The Orion Flight Test evaluated launch and high speed re-entry systems such as avionics, attitude control, parachutes and the heat shield.

In the future, Orion will launch on NASA’s new heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System. More powerful than any rocket ever built, SLS will be capable of sending humans to deep space destinations such as an asteroid and eventually Mars. Exploration Mission-1 will be the first mission to integrate Orion and the Space Launch System.

It is relatively common for people to ask about the benefits of putting this amount of money and effort into the space program. I think it’s important to remember that technologies developed for the space program are used daily, often in unanticipated ways. For example, space program has produced  many technologies that are used in medicine. A surgeon who took one of my classes once remarked to me that most things in the modern OR are a direct spinoff of the space program. NASA has a very interesting “spinoffs” site, which I highly recommend taking a look at. There is already a 2-page PDF file available for Orion, which lists the following six spinoffs:

  1. “Hypersizer” software, which enables us to design strong structures that do not have much mass. Applications: Commercial aircraft, wind tunnels.
  2. Single-walled carbon nanotubes, which further enabled engineers to reduce the mass of the spacecraft. Applications: Protective body armor (e.g., sports, policing), energy efficient lighting.
  3. A “procedure-authoring” programming tool that is particularly suited to extreme environments. Applications: The oil and gas industry.
  4. Thermoplastic Composite Structures. A new procedure that enables new manufacturing processes.
  5. Algorithms that charge batteries faster. Applications: Batteries that charge faster(!).
  6. Smart sensors that are particularly suited for assessing structural integrity. Applications: Any number of industries -construction, transportation, etc.

3. Pluto news!

For many years I have devoted  time in my astronomy and physics courses to a discussion of why Pluto was “demoted” to dwarf planet. It’s an interesting tale that reveals some of the social structures of science. The complications of defining a “planet” is  an old story: 19th-century scientists counted many objects we now call asteroids as planets. As far as I can tell, part of the problem with Pluto was that the concept of “planet” was sort of a loose consensus rather a clear definition.

Pluto and its moons are in a region of space that we call the Kuiper Belt. We believe that most short-period comets (that is, comets that orbit the Sun in under 200 years) come from this region of space and that Pluto is a very large, and relatively close, member of the Kuiper Belt. One can think of the objects in this region of space as “Kuiper Belt Objects” (KBOs), and it is quite likely that understanding the composition of KBOs (and of Pluto and its moons) will shed considerable light on the early conditions of our Solar System.

The New Horizons spacecraft “wakes up” from hibernation tomorrow, December 6, 2014. According to NASA:

Since launching in January 2006, New Horizons has spent 1,873 days in hibernation – about two-thirds of its flight time – spread over 18 separate hibernation periods from mid-2007 to late 2014 that ranged from 36 days to 202 days long.

In hibernation mode much of the spacecraft is unpowered; the onboard flight computer monitors system health and broadcasts a weekly beacon-status tone back to Earth. On average, operators woke New Horizons just over twice each year to check out critical systems, calibrate instruments, gather science data, rehearse Pluto-encounter activities and perform course corrections when necessary.

New Horizons pioneered routine cruise-flight hibernation for NASA. Not only has hibernation reduced wear and tear on the spacecraft’s electronics, it lowered operations costs and freed up NASA Deep Space Network tracking and communication resources for other missions.

New Horizons will arrive at its closest distance to Pluto on July 14, 2015 – after 10 years and nearly 5 billion kilometres.

(Image Credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute (JHUAPL/SwRI))

Week 6: The Fate of the Universe

The final class of my course “Planets, Stars, Black Holes, and Cosmology” (link), offered through SFU Continuing Studies, occurred today.

The topic this week was The Fate of the Universe. The class description:

What is the ultimate fate of the universe– a Big Crunch or a slow ebb into cold lifelessness? What happens to stars when they reach the end of their lifecycle? We will examine the strange entities known as “black holes” and consider theories of how the universe might end.

In light of the recent historic events concerning the Philae probe, I decided to modify this week’s lecture slightly to talk a little bit about comets.

  1. Click on the “download” link, which will open a new window.
  2. You will then be asked to enter the password given in class to view the document. Type in the password, then click submit
  3. You can then view the document on your screen.
  4. Click the printer icon to print the document.
  5. Click the download arrow (the arrow pointing downwards) to download the document.

Notes:

  • If you do not see the icons for printing and downloading at the top of your browser window, move your mouse cursor up to the top of the window to make the icons appear.
  • If you want to download (save a copy of) the document to your computer, you will have to enter the password each time you open the document.

Download

Week 5: Exoplanets

The fifth class of my course “Planets, Stars, Black Holes, and Cosmology” (link), offered through SFU Continuing Studies, occurred today.

The topic this week was Exoplanets. The class description:

A thorough understanding of exoplanets will tell us much about how our solar system formed, why it has small, rocky planets near the Sun, why it has gas giant planets far from the Sun, why the Earth has the conditions and chemicals that can support life, and why conditions on other planets are hostile to life. Theories of planet formation and evolution are incomplete, but offer specific predictions. Detections of exoplanets are already testing, validating, and in some cases invalidating, details of these theories.

  1. Click on the “download” link, which will open a new window.
  2. You will then be asked to enter the password given in class to view the document. Type in the password, then click submit
  3. You can then view the document on your screen.
  4. Click the printer icon to print the document.
  5. Click the download arrow (the arrow pointing downwards) to download the document.

Notes:

  • If you do not see the icons for printing and downloading at the top of your browser window, move your mouse cursor up to the top of the window to make the icons appear.
  • If you want to download (save a copy of) the document to your computer, you will have to enter the password each time you open the document.

Download

Week 4: Much ado about Pluto

The fourth class of my course “Planets, Stars, Black Holes, and Cosmology” (link), offered through SFU Continuing Studies, occurred today.

The topic this week was Much ado about Pluto. The class description:

Pluto was recently “demoted” from being a planet. What is it, then? We will explore a recent tale of astronomical intrigue as we trace the debate around Pluto’s planetary status, and will conclude by examining the characteristics of a region of our solar system called the Kuiper Belt.

  1. Click on the “download” link, which will open a new window.
  2. You will then be asked to enter the password given in class to view the document. Type in the password, then click submit
  3. You can then view the document on your screen.
  4. Click the printer icon to print the document.
  5. Click the download arrow (the arrow pointing downwards) to download the document.

Notes:

  • If you do not see the icons for printing and downloading at the top of your browser window, move your mouse cursor up to the top of the window to make the icons appear.
  • If you want to download (save a copy of) the document to your computer, you will have to enter the password each time you open the document.

Download

Week 3: Our Solar System

The third class of my course “Planets, Stars, Black Holes, and Cosmology” (link), offered through SFU Continuing Studies, occurred today.

The topic this week was: Our Solar System. The class description:

We will focus on our solar system’s celestial bodies: the planets, moons and asteroids that compose our section of the galaxy. We will begin with the solar system’s formation and then discuss unique features of each of the eight planets. We will also highlight some lesser-known but interesting moons.

I decided not to produce a handout this week given the absolutely outstanding resource that is available through NASA:

http://solarsystem.nasa.gov

I strongly encourage everyone to spend some time looking through the amazing array of “fact sheets”, histories of space exploration, and, of course, the remarkable images.

Snap, Crackle, Pop!: A Short History of Noise

My thanks to everyone who came out on a Saturday afternoon to listen to my lecture on the history of noise. The description of the lecture was:

The word “noise” is often synonymous with “nuisance,” which implies something to be avoided as much as possible. We label blaring sirens, the space between stations on the radio dial and the din of a busy street as “noise.” Is noise simply a sound we don’t like?  How have scientists defined noise? Is there ever a time when a noisy system is desirable?

We will consider the evolution of how scientists and engineers have thought about noise, beginning in the Victorian Era and continuing to the present day. We will explore the idea of noise as a social construction and a technological necessity. We’ll also touch on critical developments in the study of sound, the history of physics and engineering and the development of communications technology.

I used ideas from the history of physics, the history of music, the discipline of sound studies, and the history of electrical engineering to make the point that understanding “noise” is essential to understanding advancements in physics and engineering in the last century. We began with a discussion of 19th-century attitudes toward noise (and its association with “progress” and industry) before moving on to examine the early history of recorded sound and music, early attempts to measure noise, and the noise abatement movement. I concluded with a brief overview of my recent work on the role of noise in the development of the modem during the early Cold War.

Once again, I’d like to thank everyone who attended and the SFU Seniors Lifelong Learners Society for sponsoring the event.

Week 2: We are all made of stars

The second class of my course “Planets, Stars, Black Holes, and Cosmology” (link), offered through SFU Continuing Studies, occurred today. It was a pleasure to see so many new and returning faces! Welcome to all.

The topic this week was We are all made of stars. The class description:

The subject of children’s songs and mythology for centuries, stars have fascinating lifecycles. We will begin with a look at stellar birth and evolution before considering how stars are classified and go on to examine in detail our own star, the Sun. Students in the class can download the course notes for today by following the instructions below:

  1. Click on the “download” link, which will open a new window.
  2. You will then be asked to enter the password given in class to view the document. Type in the password, then click submit
  3. You can then view the document on your screen.
  4. Click the printer icon to print the document.
  5. Click the download arrow (the arrow pointing downwards) to download the document.

Notes:

  • If you do not see the icons for printing and downloading at the top of your browser window, move your mouse cursor up to the top of the window to make the icons appear.
  • If you want to download (save a copy of) the document to your computer, you will have to enter the password each time you open the document.

Download

Week 1: Planets, Stars, Black Holes, and Cosmology

The first class of my course “Planets, Stars, Black Holes, and Cosmology” (link), offered through SFU Continuing Studies, occurred today. It was a pleasure to see so many new and returning faces! Welcome to all.

The topic this week was Early Cosmology: The Big Bang. The class description:

The nature of the universe and our place in it has fascinated humanity throughout history. We will focus on how our understanding of the universe changed by examining key developments in the history of cosmology from a physics perspective. The Big Bang theory will form a touchstone for our discussions.

Students in the class can download the course notes for today by following the instructions below:

  1. Click on the “download” link, which will open a new window.
  2. You will then be asked to enter the password given in class to view the document. Type in the password, then click submit
  3. You can then view the document on your screen.
  4. Click the printer icon to print the document.
  5. Click the download arrow (the arrow pointing downwards) to download the document.

Notes:

  • If you do not see the icons for printing and downloading at the top of your browser window, move your mouse cursor up to the top of the window to make the icons appear.
  • If you want to download (save a copy of) the document to your computer, you will have to enter the password each time you open the document.

Download

Self-Study, Improvisational Theatre, and the Reflective Turn

I am pleased to announce the publication of my article “Self-Study, Improvisational Theatre, and the Reflective Turn: Using Video Data to Challenge My Pedagogy of Science Teacher Education” in the journal Educational Research for Social Change.

The abstract:

This article analyses a small section of data of a year-
long project in which I used a video camera to record nearly all the meetings of my physics curriculum methods courses in a pre-service teacher education programme. After briefly setting the context for the study, the article presents a lengthy selection of data from a critical incident in my teacher education classroom in a script-like form. The data are then analysed from three different theoretical lenses — the lens of the viewer, the researcher, and the teacher educator — as a way of examining how each lens can inform different aspects of myself. The article concludes with a discussion of the reflexive effects of both viewing video recordings of my classes and engaging with theatre literature on my pedagogy of science teacher education.

The article is is available freely, under a creative commons licence, by registering with the journal. Click here for the issue in which my article appears.

Philosopher’s Café: Science Literacy

Tonight (Monday October 20, 2014)  I am pleased to moderate a “Philosopher’s Café” on the topic of Science Literacy. These events are sponsored by SFU Continuing Studies and are free to the public.

The catalyst for tonight:

There has been (another) recent upsurge of interest in science education. How should we determine what science is taught in schools? How much science education should be compulsory? What does it mean to be a scientifically literate person?

Details:

19:00-20:30

The Gathering Place, Living room, 1100–2253 Leigh Square Pl., Port Coquitlam | Map

Please note that this is not a lecture or a class. It is an opportunity for  people to come together and discuss a topic of interest.

From the Philosopher’s Café program website:

Philosophers’ Café is a series of informal public discussions in libraries, cafés and restaurants throughout Metro Vancouver. The cafés, which are open to everyone, have brought dialogue and discussion to thousands of people who are interested in exploring issues from the absurd to the sublime. To learn more about the Philosophers’ Café, please visit their website.