Halley’s Meteor Shower and Two spacecraft updates

By on October 21, 2019 in

Got clear skies? Go out tonight and catch the Orionids Meteor shower, a storm of falling stars generated by Halley’s comet. Later this week, we’ll see aurora like those that will one day be predicted by the ESA Solar Probe. We also have an update on the Mars 2020 rover.

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I’m not going to lie, we are currently entering my favourite time of the year. Here in the northern hemisphere, our temperatures our dropping, the trees are putting on a color show, Halloween decorations are up, and Orion is greeting me during my final dog walk of the night. 

I’m not going to lie, we are currently entering my favourite time of the year. Here in the northern hemisphere, our temperatures are dropping, the trees are putting on a color show, Halloween decorations are up, and Orion is greeting me during my final dog walk of the night. 

Tonight, Orion also has an extra surprise: It will be the point of origin for a myriad of shooting stars associated with the Orionid meteor shower. With only 20-25 meteors per hour, and with a third-quarter moon rising alongside the Orion constellation, you may not see much. I still want you to know about this meteor shower, however, because it is part of a larger and very pleasing set of cosmic events. One of the most consistently bright comets to pass through our inner solar system is comet Halley. Archeological records hint at it being observed as early as 467 BC, and it’s regular return has been noted by people of a myriad of nations in writings, art, and historical tales told by bards. In 1705, less than 20 years after Newton put forward his laws of gravity, force, and motion, Edmund Halley calculated a possible orbit for what he believed to be a single, recurring comet. Today we know that object by the name Comet 1P/Halley and recognize it for its 75.3 yr period that managed to mark both the Birth and Death of author Mark Twain. 

As comet Halley orbits our solar system, it leaves behind a trail of ice, dust, and the occasional pebble, and it just happens that debris trail exactly crosses the orbit of the Earth. Every year, on about October 21st, our planet plows through that debris, with the constellation Orion marking the point on the sky that lines up with where our atmosphere impacts that debris cloud. 

That means, those meteors you probably aren’t going to see tonight, are leftover bits of Comet Halley. So… if you are out late tonight or early early tomorrow morning, look for Orion, and look for bright streaks racing away in the night, and know that you are seeing parts of the first comet to be understood.

Moving on to our next story, we have nothing so grand. Rather, we have two quick mission updates. First off, the European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter is getting packed up and shipped out for its journey from Germany to Cape Canaveral for launch in February of next year. The mission is meant to be a complement to the Parker Solar Probe and will take roughly 2 years to get into a polar orbit, and will then observe the Sun’s Surface, while Parker focuses on its atmosphere.  In addition to imagers, this mission also carries instruments for measuring the composition of the solar wind. Particles carried to Earth in the solar wind are responsible for amazing aurora, and the periodic death of spacecraft and power grids. As we become increasingly more dependent on both telecommunications satellites and, well, power, understanding space weather is becoming more and more important. Having this new spacecraft in an orbit that reveals the under observed polar regions of the sun will hopefully improve our space weather forecasts. If you want to see the effects of space weather for yourself, this week might be a good time to try. A moderate geomagnetic storm is predicted for later this week. If you live above 45 degress latitude, get out on the nights of October 24 and 25 and look toward your hemisphere’s pole. There is a chance that ghostly light will be visible along the horizon.

It always amazes me how much ground-based travel these spacecraft experience before they make it into space. The solar probe will be traveling from Germany to Florida, and it contains instruments that were sent to Germany from all over the world. While this is a lot of shipping to worry about, the main concerns are that the spacecraft will get damaged along the way. With planet destined spacecraft, all this transportation also poses a terrible risk of biological contamination.

The Mars 2020 Rover was just moved from the Spacecraft Assembly Facility to the Simulator Building at the JPL, where it will undergo testing. To make this move, they wrapped the mission uptight, and then had to wipe down everything with isopropyl alcohol. This mission is one no one will touch with skin, and every precaution is being taken to make sure no fallen eyelash makes its way to mars. Complete decontamination is believed to be impossible, but since this mission is going to be collecting rocks for eventual return to Earth, the hope is to get it clean enough that any left behind microbes will be too few to contaminate those rocks.  

Currently, the Mars 2020 rover is scheduled to launch from Florida in July 2020, and it will then reach mars in February 2021, making the 2020 rover more of a 2021 rover. It is hoped that it will be joined on mars by the separately built ESA Rosalyn Franklin Rover, but the parachutes needed for that mission’s landing have so far being more difficult to manufacture than predicted and may put that mission’s on-time launch in jeopardy. The shapes and resonances of Mars and Earth provide ideal launch windows every 26 months, and the next launch window will be either side of New Years in 2023.


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