Podcaster: Kenneth Renshaw
Solar System Ambassador Website:
Saturn Observation Campaign Website:
Bio: Kenneth Renshaw is a college music instructor, piano teacher/tuner/technician, church choir director/pianist, photographer and videographer from the small town of Piggott, Arkansas. He graduated from Southern Baptist College and Arkansas State University with Associate, Bachelor, and Masters degrees in music education, but has had the hobby of amateur astronomy since before the age of 16. He is a Solar System Ambassador and a member of the Saturn Observation Campaign for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and does space presentations for numerous schools and organizations. He is married to Rachel Burden, with 2 stepdaughters, Melody, 16, and Liberty, 15.
Description: Almost since the beginning of the space age, NASA and the other space programs have used spacecraft to actively research astronomy, from our solar system to the furthest reaches of the universe. This podcast is a brief summary of the current spacecraft being used to explore astronomy-from the nearby Moon to the edge of the observable universe, the Cosmic Background Radiation.
Today’s Sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by Deborah Rosenthal on behalf of Dr. Pamela Gay in appreciation of her amazing and inspiring explanations of complicated material that helped turned idle curiosity about astronomy into a passion.
Welcome to the podcast: Exploring Space from Space. I’m Kenneth Renshaw, a member of the Saturn Observation Campaign and a Solar System Ambassador for NASA.
Almost since the beginning of the space age, NASA and the other space programs have used spacecraft to actively research astronomy, from our solar system to the furthest reaches of the universe. This podcast is a brief summary of the current spacecraft being used to explore astronomy-from the nearby Moon to the edge of the observable universe, the Cosmic Background Radiation. To stay within reasonable time limits, we will focus on spacecraft used for astronomy, rather than the hundreds of satellites used to study the earth.
First, the nearest star, our Sun. For obvious reasons (the heat), satellites that study the Sun are usually in a distant orbit around it, such as at the Earth’s distance. There are many probes studying the Sun and its effect on the Earth. Ulysses is a spacecraft that orbits the Sun in a polar orbit, giving us the first look at the polar regions of the Sun. SOHO, the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, is a joint effort of NASA and the European Space Agency, launched in December 1995 to an area beyond Earth’s orbit. It has 3 instruments that can monitor the interior of the Sun in a science called helioseismology. The FAST, a low altitude mission around the Earth, and POLAR, at a high altitude, are used together to study the particles, charge, and magnetism in the ionosphere and how they affect the Oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere.
Launched in 1997, ACE studies the solar wind from a Lagrange point between the Earth and the Sun. In 2000, the European Space Agency launched CLUSTER, a set of 4 spacecraft in Earth orbit, studying the interaction of the solar wind and the magnetosphere, particularly the magnetic reconnection events that cause solar storms. The 2000 launch of IMAGE began the imaging of the plasmas above the Earth, with far and extreme ultraviolet, neutral atom imaging, and radio sounding. It is in a highly elliptical orbit around the Earth. TWINS, or Two Wide-angle Imaging Neutral-atom Spectrometers, are 2 spacecraft in a high orbit of the Earth, giving a 3-D view of the magnetosphere. THEMIS, a 2 year mission using 5 identical orbiters, is studying the auroras in improving our predictions of Space Weather. Solar-B, or Hinode, is a Japanese, United Kingdom, and NASA collaboration in a sun-synchronous polar orbit, launched in 2006. It studies the sun in high resolution visual, ultraviolet, and X-Ray wavelengths. The 2006 mission, STEREO, or Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory, consists of 2 spacecraft positioned one ahead and one behind Earth’s orbit, providing a stereoscopic view of solar activity, enabling more accurate predictions of when that activity will affect Earth, as well as one of the probes showing us the activity on the hidden side of the Sun before it rotates around to our side, also enabling better forecasting. The Advanced Composition Explorer, or ACE, is at a Lagrange Point between the Earth and Sun, studying solar, as well as interstellar particles. Earlier this year, the IBEX, or Interstellar Boundary Explorer, was launched in a high orbit 2/3 of the way to the Moon. It collects particles from the boundary of the Sun’s influence, far beyond Pluto. It will study what is known as the Termination Shock, where interstellar wind begins to mix with the Solar wind.
Planetary probes are spacecraft that actually visit these worlds, sometimes landing on them. Starting at the first planet, Mercury, the first spacecraft designed to orbit the planet is on its was to the hot, airless world near the Sun after a 2004 launch. Messenger—the Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry, and Ranging Mission—has made 2 flybys of Mercury so far, and, after another flyby in September of this year, will go into orbit on March 18, 2011. It will make a comprehensive study of Mercury for 1 year.
At the cloud-enshrouded, and therefore, hottest planet, with a runaway greenhouse effect, the Venus Express was placed into orbit around the second planet in April 2006 by ESA, the European Space Agency. Among its many instruments is the ability to monitor Venus from the thermal infrared to the ultraviolet wavelengths.
At the Moon, the SELENE (also known as Kaguya) is in orbit, sent by JAXA, the Japanese Space Agency, as is Chandrayaan 1, a project of India. To be launched in early June is NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter along with an impactor, LCROSS. Colliding into a permanently shaded crater at one of the Moon’s poles, the LCROSS should kick up a plume of vapor from the theorized water ice in the crater, giving astronauts a source of water and fuel for a future lunar base.
At Mars are 3 spacecraft on the surface–a lander that recently completed its mission at the north polar region, Phoenix, and the rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. The 2 rovers were planned for a 90 day mission in 2004, but have been extremely successful over the past 5 years—20 times the expected time, a surprise for everyone. Next roving on the surface will be the Mars Science Laboratory, to be launched in 2011. In orbit around Mars is NASA’s Mars Odyssey and the high-resolution cameras of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, as well as Europe’s Mars Express.
On its way to orbit not one, but 2 objects in the asteroid belt, is Dawn. It will orbit the asteroid Vesta, and the former asteroid promoted to a dwarf planet, Ceres. It will then be the first spacecraft in history to orbit 2 objects.
No spacecraft is currently around Jupiter, after the conclusion of the Galileo mission, that plunged through the crushing atmosphere of Jupiter in September 2003. However, the New Horizons recently flew by and studied Jupiter, as well as steal a microscopic bit of Jupiter’s orbital momentum to give it a boost to its destination of Pluto.
At Saturn is the highly successful orbiter, Cassini, now in a two-year extension of an original 4-year mission. It has studied Saturn, its rings, its magnetospheric environment, and its moons. In January 2005, an attached lander, Huygens, landed on the haze enshrouded moon, Titan. Titan is the only moon in the Solar System that has a thick atmosphere, and is a cold version of the biochemistry of early Earth.
No probes since Voyager 2 have visited Uranus or Neptune.
On its way to Pluto is the New Horizons. Coincidentally, on my 20th wedding anniversary on July 14, 2015, New Horizons will fly by Pluto and its 3 moons, and then go on to fly by a yet determined destination in the Kuiper belt.
When Deep Impact hit Comet Tempel 1 on the 4th of July of 2005, it left a crater that, unfortunately, was too enshrouded in a dust plume to be observed. The Stardust spacecraft, that collected comet particles from Wild 2, is now on it way to Tempel 1 to check the remains of this collision. Meanwhile, Deep Impact is now called
Epoxi, and is now studying extrasolar planets that transit their stars, and will also fly by
Comet Hartley next year. This is getting 2 for the price of one, using these 2 spacecraft.
We have now toured the main objects of the Solar System. Let now go back to Earth, where a number of spacecraft are orbiting, and studying things far beyond the Sun’s domain, even to the very edge of the observable universe.
Telescopes and other instruments are placed in orbit, since our atmosphere blurs and can actually block much of the electromagnetic radiation we need to study to get a complete picture of the universe. In visible light and the near ultraviolet and infrared we have the Hubble Space Telescope; in the infrared, we have the Spitzer Space Telescope. SOFIA is an infrared telescope onboard an aircraft. GALEX, or Galaxy Evolution Explorer, is an ultraviolet probe, photographing millions of galaxies in the UV since 2003. To pick up the X-Ray, we have Chandra, the Japanese/US collaboration, Suzaku, and Europe’s XMM-Newton. RXTE, the Rossi X-Ray Timing Explorer studies black holes, neutron stars, X-Ray Pulsars, and X-Ray bursts in this frequency. CHIPS, or the Cosmic Hot Interstellar Plasma Spectrometer is monitoring the plasma in our galaxy. Last month, Kepler was launched to constantly monitor the light output of 100,000 stars and detect any planets passing in front of their star, and try to find out what percentage of stars have planets in the habitable zone. The Fermi spacecraft (formerly called GLAST for Gamma Ray Large Area Space Telescope) monitors the sky for Gamma Ray Bursts, and also has a telescope to study this high-energy radiation. On the other hand, the Swift spacecraft studies bursts in Gamma Rays, X Rays, UV, and Optical wavelengths. HETE-2 has, for over 6 years, also been used to detect these most massive explosions in the universe. Integral is a gamma ray spectrometer launched by the European Space Agency. And lastly, WMAP, the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, has, in high resolution, mapped the Cosmic Background Radiation and determined the universe to be 13.73 billion years old, +/- 1%.
Thanks for joining us for a more clear view of the universe, thanks to the space age, and thanks for listening to 365 Days of Astronomy.
End of podcast:
365 Days of Astronomy
The 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast is produced by the New Media Working Group of the International Year of Astronomy 2009. Audio post-production by Preston Gibson. Bandwidth donated by libsyn.com and wizzard media. Web design by Clockwork Active Media Systems. You may reproduce and distribute this audio for non-commercial purposes. Please consider supporting the podcast with a few dollars (or Euros!). Visit us on the web at 365DaysOfAstronomy.org or email us at info@365DaysOfAstronomy.org. Until tomorrow…goodbye.