Nov 20th: Thanksgiving Cheat Sheet 2014

By on November 20, 2014 in

Podcaster: Alice Enevoldsen aka Alice’s AstroInfo

Alices-Astro-InfoTitle: Thanksgiving Cheat Sheet 2014

Organization: Alice’s AstroInfo

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Description: Want to avoid politics, religion, and family issues over the Thanksgiving dinnertable this year? Talk astronomy! Here’s a cheat sheet of fun and relevant topics and questions to discuss with your family and friends this holiday season.

Bio: Alice Enevoldsen currently volunteers as one of NASA’s Solar System Ambassadors. She has worked in planetariums from 1996 to 2014, and holds degrees in Astronomy-Geology and Teaching. Now she works hard to share her love of the stars and excitement about astronomy with as many people as possible.

Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by — no one. We still need sponsors for many days in 2014, so please consider sponsoring a day or two. Just click on the “Donate” button on the lower left side of this webpage, or contact us at


Hello, I’m Alice Enevoldsen, coming to you not-so-live from Alice’s AstroInfo with a podcast cheat sheet for your Thanksgiving dinner table conversation.

How are you today? … Great, me too!

The excuse for today’s podcast, Thanksgiving next week, is clearly Americentric, but I’ll argue to the bajillion of you listening from not the United States that you can use this cheat sheet at any get-together with family and friends over the next month or two.

By now, your family and friends probably know that you think astronomy is pretty cool, which, with a few sidesteps here and there, can lead to a pleasant dinner conversation free of politics, religion, and especially family pitfalls. Well, that’s the hope anyway.

I’ll start with Topics About Which You Might Be Asked

First up are Rosetta and Philae!

Question: I heard something on the news about a landing on an asteroid or something?

Answer: The European Space Agency just landed a space probe on a comet without the use of harpoons or a thruster

The details: Well, if you’re listening to this podcast, I doubt you missed hearing about this dramatic and historic event. The trick may be in explaining just how mind boggling this is, and sorting out the confusion from the real question. Many people confuse comets with either asteroids or shooting stars, so keep your ears pricked for that.

Unless you already have a favorite bit of the story, you might focus on how they landed on this comet without the use of either harpoons or a top thruster, because the idea of harpoons in space is awesome. So basically, it just dropped off Rosetta and fell gently to the surface of the comet, bouncing twice in slow motion before coming to rest in what is currently thought to be the shadow of a cliff. Philae was able to complete its primary science mission before running out of battery power and going into hibernation. Perhaps when the scientific analysis of the data is done, we’ll know whether comets are rocky ice balls or icy rock balls.

To prepare ahead of time or as an activity for your younger companions, you can build one of several paper models of Philae. Links are embedded in the transcript. You can also use these models to demonstrate Rosetta’s Seussian orbit around comet 67P.

Topics to avoid: As I’m trying to recommend pleasant conversation topics with a minimum of conflict, steer clear of the #shirtstorm issues and sexism in science as these may well lead into a quagmire that drains inevitably towards Gamer Gate and less than polite exchanges over dessert. (It’s worth having these conversations, but over the Thanksgiving dinner is unlikely to be the right time).

Next topic: Spacecraft Accidents

Question: Two of NASA’s missions blew up last month, right?

Answer: I know what you’re asking about. We did have two terrible accidents with spacecraft in October, one of which was tragic, and both of which will cause setbacks to most commercial spaceflight programs.

The details: So, I actually can’t come up with nice dinnertable conversation about this topic, but I’m including it since as the astronomy expert in your family, they may well ask you about it. I would simply gently confirm the accidents and correct any misconceptions. Those misconceptions are likely to be that these were NASA missions, or that this is the end of the space program. It is a tribute to rocket scientists and engineers everywhere that spacecraft don’t explode all the time. Engineering is pretty awesome

Topics to avoid: The whole thing, save it for a time when you don’t need to avoid depressing topics.

Let’s move on to some Topics You Might Want to Bring Up

Mars: MAVEN’s arrival and Comet Siding Spring

The pitch: The party has been at Mars recently!

The details: It’s been driven out of our minds with all the excitement about Rosetta and Philae’s landing on Comet 67P, but there was another comet we were all fussed about just a few weeks ago: Comet Siding Spring and its extreme close brush to Mars. Just a couple weeks before that the MAVEN spacecraft arrived at Mars on a mission to learn plenty about Mars’s atmosphere and atmospheric history.

So far the photos from Philae and Rosetta show a lot more detail, but the data on Siding Spring is close-approach data about when an Oort cloud object passes close to a planet. Also, we’ve had an additional month to analyze the data about Siding Spring, and the focus is on upper atmosphere effects.

Something else you missed this week is that MAVEN finished its commissioning phase, which is basically the part where it gets ready to do science, and has begun its year-long science mission. Exciting times – we’re going to be learning plenty more about Mars’s atmospheric history over the next couple years.

And lastly, let’s discuss Solar Activity

The pitch: Big sunspots, big flares, and possibilities of aurora farther south in the Northern Hemisphere than any time in the last decade.

The details: Solar maximum has passed, and won’t be back for another 10 or 11 years, so why am I telling you to get people all excited about solar activity and promise them aurorae over their local town? Funny thing. Our Sun’s biggest flares have a tendency to happen in the few years after a solar maximum, and that’s where we are now. The biggest flares in my personal memory were in October and November of 2003, significantly after the solar maximum in early 2000.

Recently we’ve had some major flares and coronal mass ejections originating from the sunspot group 2192 (subsequently renamed 2209). 2209 is facing us again, so we might see some activity this week, or we might not. In any case, I recommend staying tuned in to the space weather news over the next year.
Topics to avoid: Well, you don’t really need to avoid this, but these concerns may come up.

Sometimes giant solar flares can spark worry about their effect on humans and electrical grids. There is some risk, but the Earth’s magnetic field does a great job of protecting us, and modern electrical and telephone grids have significantly more redundant safety breaks built into them. Still, if you wanted to be prepared, you need to do the exact same things you’d do to prepare for a multi-day blackout. That will vary, depending on where you live, but your preparation for whatever Earth-based natural disasters happen in your area also ought to be enough for a blackout of a few days. People who rely on shortwave radio for emergency communication will have more issues than anyone else.

Well, that should be plenty to keep you going for a while. I hope your family and friends are interested in all this cool astronomy stuff too.

Once again, I’m Alice Enevoldsen. You can find me online as AlicesAstroInfo on Twitter, Facebook, and

Have a happy Thanksgiving next week!

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
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