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Home | Tag Archives: amy’s amazing astronomy

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Amy’s Everyday Astronomy: 30 Years Ago – Voyager 2 Makes Historic Flyby of Neptune

Picture it: Our solar system, August 25, 1989. NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft makes a close flyby of Neptune, giving humanity its first close-up look at the solar system’s eighth planet.

This event would mark the end of the Voyager mission’s Grand Tour of the four gas giants—Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Since that time, no other spacecraft have visited Neptune.

Wrapped in clouds of teal and cobalt colors, Neptune looks much like a blue-hued sibling of Jupiter and Saturn. Though the blue coloring indicates the presence of methane in the atmosphere, a massive slate-colored storm, dubbed the “Great Dark Spot” is similar to Jupiter’s own Great Red Spot.

During the Voyager 2 flyby, six new moons and four rings were also discovered. However, these discoveries and images weren’t an easy feat to accomplish.

At about 30 times farther from the Sun than the Earth is, this icy giant only receives 0.001 times the amount of sunlight as compared to Earth.

With such poor lighting conditions, Voyager 2’s camera would need longer exposure times to get quality images of the planet. However, reaching a maximum speed of roughly 60,000 mph (90,000 kph) would make the images blurry—much like taking a picture of a roadside sign from the window of a speeding car.

This meant that the team would need to improvise. They programmed Voyager 2’s thrusters to fire gently in order to rotate the spacecraft so the camera would stay focused on its target. This allowed clear pictures to be taken without interruption to the craft’s overall speed and direction.

Because the probe’s distance from Earth also meant radio signals from Voyager 2 would be weaker than those of other flybys, the Deep Space Network (DSN) was utilized to assist. This network uses radio antennas at sites in Madrid, Spain; Canberra, Australia; and Goldstone, California.

In order to boost the signal from the DSN during the Neptune encounter, non-DSN antennas were used to collect data. These included a 210 ft (64 meter) dish in Parkes, Australia, and multiple 82 ft (25 meter) antennas at the Very Large Array (VLA) in Socorro, New Mexico.

This effort ensured that the engineers could hear Voyager 2 loud and clear, and increased the amount of data that could be sent to Earth during any given period, allowing the spacecraft to send back more pictures from the flyby.

“One of the things that made the Voyager planetary encounters different from missions today is that there was no internet that would have allowed the whole team and the whole world to see the pictures at the same time,” said Ed Stone, Voyager’s project scientist since 1975. “The images were available in real time at a limited number of locations.”

This didn’t stop the team from being committed to giving the public updates as quickly as possible.

From August 21st to August 29th, they shared their discoveries with the world during daily press conferences. In fact, starting at 4am CST on August 24th, a program called “Voyager All Night” broadcast regular updates from the probe’s closest approach to the planet. The morning after this televised event, Vice President Dan Quayle commended the Voyager team during his visit to the Lab.

Chuck Berry and Carl Sagan at the Voyager 2 Flyby Celebration
| Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL

Later that same evening, Chuck Berry, whose song “Johnny B. Goode” was included on the Golden Record that flew with both Voyager spacecraft, played at JPL’s celebration of this feat.

“The Voyager planetary program really was an opportunity to show the public what science is all about,” said Stone. “Everyday we learned something new.”

As we all know, this wasn’t the end of the Voyagers’ achievements. Their discoveries extend well beyond that historic week three decades ago.

Voyager data complements other missions, including NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX). And NASA is preparing the Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP) which is due to launch in 2024.

This mission will capitalize on Voyager observations.

With both probes now in interstellar space, they are reporting back information on space “weather” and conditions from the region outside the Heliosphere—a protective bubble around the planets created by high-speed particles and magnetic fields from our Sun—that is filled with debris from stars that exploded elsewhere in our galaxy.

Indeed, the Voyager craft have taken humanity’s first tenuous step into the cosmic ocean where no probe has gone before.


For a daily dose of Amy’s Everyday Astronomy:, like and follow her Facebook Pagecheck out her webpage; to read previous articles, click here.

Amy’s Everyday Astronomy: India Destroys Own Satellite, Creates Potential Danger for ISS

On March 27th, the Indian Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) did something few other countries have accomplished: they launched a missile that destroyed one of their own satellites in low Earth orbit, on purpose.

The successful missile test, named Mission Shakti, was revealed during a live televised address from the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. He stated that this test has made India a “space power”.

Initially, the orbit of the satellite was thought to be low enough that all the debris created from the blast would fall harmlessly back to Earth, where it would burn up completely upon re-entry. India’s Ministry of External Affairs affirmed that the risk of Mission Shakti was low, stating, “The test was done in the lower atmosphere to ensure that there is no space debris. Whatever debris is generated will decay and fall back onto the Earth within weeks.”

Unfortunately, it looks as though this might not be the case.

Though the satellite was destroyed at a relatively low altitude of 300km (186 miles), which is well below the ISS orbit, as well as that of most other satellites, NASA has increased the risk to the ISS by 44% in the last few days. This increased risk is due to NASA identifying 400 different pieces of orbital debris from the event.

While NASA is tracking 60 pieces that are 10cm (3.93 inches) or bigger, 24 of those have gone above the apogee of the ISS.

Jim Bridenstine, NASA Administrator, described the missile test as a “terrible, terrible thing” stating, “It’s unacceptable and NASA needs to be very clear about what its impact to us is. Intentionally creating orbital debris fields is not compatible with human space flight.”

Bridenstine went on to say, “The good things is, it’s low enough in Earth orbit that, over time, this will all dissipate.”

And indeed, the astronauts are thought to be safe for now. However, should the risk increase even more, the ISS can be moved out of the path of any dangerous debris, though NASA would rather not have to take this measure.

But this is not the only test of this type that has been performed. Back in 2007, China ran a similar test at a relatively high altitude which left potentially dangerous debris that are still in orbit to this day. And in 1985, the United States also used one of its own satellites for target practice.

Then, in 2008, the United States did so again when a highly classified reconnaissance satellite malfunctioned shortly after reaching orbit. Luckily, the debris from both of those tests are believed to have eventually fallen safely back to Earth.

There are potentially political ramifications to this recent test. Some feel that Indian policymakers are flirting with the idea of a more aggressive nuclear strategy. In this case, one of being able to disarm Pakistan of its nuclear weapons early in a crisis. Using a hit-to-kill interceptor to destroy a satellite in low Earth orbit is a very similar task to destroying a Pakistani nuclear-armed missile on a ballistic trajectory outside of Earth’s atmosphere.

Still, Prime Minister Modi claims that “India has no intention to threaten anyone. The main objective of our space program is ensuring the country’s security, its economic development, and India’s technological progress.”

The Prime Minister went on to say, “India has always been opposed to the weaponization of space and an arms race in outer space, and this test does not in any way change this position.”


If you would like to know more about a particular space fact, or have questions about anything in the universe, send an email to, and you could be featured in an upcoming article.

For a daily dose of Everyday Astronomy with Amy, like and follow her Facebook Page; to read previous articles, click here.

Amy’s Everyday Astronomy: The Best in Space for 2018

As 2018 comes to a close, I wanted to take a look back at some of the best space stories of the year and tell you about some really cool upcoming events for 2019.

Earlier this year, we watched as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launched in February sending Elon Musk’s Tesla (piloted by Starman) out into the solar system and we sat in awe as the two booster rockets made it safely back to the launch pad, landing side by side.

Back in August, NASA launched the Parker Solar Probe which is currently collecting data from its highly elliptical orbit that brings it within 4 million miles of the sun. Around this same time, OsirisRex reached Bennu where it is collecting samples of the asteroid for return to Earth for detailed study. And just this month, OsirisRex confirmed the existence of water beneath the surface of Bennu.

But that’s not the only place water was found: ice was also detected on the north and south poles of the moon, as well as in the atmosphere of exoplanet HR 8799C.

Sadly, there were also some losses: both the Kepler Telescope, which made many awesome exoplanet discoveries, and the Dawn spacecraft that orbited dwarf planets Vesta and Ceres ran out of fuel, putting an end to their very successful missions. And in October, the Soyuz spacecraft was forced to abort its mission during launch due to booster separation failure.

But despite these setbacks, NASA was still able to keep us on the edge of our seats with the successful landing of InSight on the surface of Mars. This would mark its first landing on the Red Planet’s surface in over six years. And as a shining example of their many decades of space exploration, NASA also announced that the Voyager 2 probe has entered interstellar space.

But perhaps one of the most surprising of all is the announcement by NASA Chief, Jim Bridenstine, that they will be working with commercial companies for the purposes of sending humans back to the moon…to stay.

For 2019, you can expect the year to start off with a bang as New Horizons, the spacecraft that brought us those beautifully detailed pictures of Pluto, zips past Ultima Thule, a tiny little rocky body in the Kuiper Belt that’s about the size of New York City. You can watch flyby live on the mission website or on YouTube.

And on January 20th, go outside and look up, because starting at 7:36pm MST sky watchers in both North and South America will be in for a treat as the Wolf Moon turns blood red. You can expect to be outside for a while because totality doesn’t happen until about 10:12pm MST.

So, bundle up and bring your lawn chairs, because you never know what you’ll see if you just keep your eyes to the skies.


For a daily dose of Everyday Astronomy with Amy, like and follow her Facebook Page; to read previous articles, click here.

Amy’s Everyday Astronomy: NASA Brings First Mars Landing in Six Years to Viewers Everywhere 

As one of three planets in the habitable zone of our sun, Mars is ripe for study. While Venus is similar in size to Earth, its atmospheric composition is such that anything we try to send down to the surface gets crushed within minutes.

This makes Mars the best place, outside of Earth, itself, to send probes and landers. And over the decades, we’ve sent many spacecrafts to Mars to study the surface history of the planet by examining canyons, rocks, soil, and weather patterns.

But soon, scientists at NASA are going to go “in depth” in their research of Mars. Launched on March 5th, the first NASA spacecraft to venture to the Red Planet since the Curiosity Rover arrived in 2012 will touch down on November 26th.

The new InSight lander will reach the Martian surface where it will begin investigating the ‘inner space’ of the Red Planet.

Short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, the lander is designed to study the crust, mantle, and core of the planet.

By studying the interior structure of Mars, scientists will be able to get information about the early formation of rocky planets, like those in our inner solar system.

Insight will be measuring tectonic activity, as well as meteorite impacts.

You’ll remember that in recent news, there was controversy over an icy cloud formation over the summit of Arsia Mons that some believed was actually a volcanic eruption in progress. InSight will answer whether any volcanic activity has occurred in recent decades.

The lander, which uses cutting edge instruments, will do this by measuring the planet’s seismology, heat flow, and precision tracking.

The InSight lander is being followed to Mars by two smaller spacecraft called CubeSats, according to NASA. Mars Cube One (MarCo) will be the first deep-space mission for the CubeSats.

As MarCo makes its scheduled flyby of Mars, it will attempt to relay data from the InSight lander as it enters the planet’s atmosphere and lands.

If you’d like to watch the landing live, you can check out the broadcast schedule online.  You can also follow the landing on social media at Twitter and Facebook.

To ask mission experts live questions about the mission, you can use #askNASA.


For a daily dose of Everyday Astronomy with Amy, like and follow her Facebook Page; to read previous articles, click here.

Amy’s Everyday Astronomy: Swedish Research Team Develops New Solar Energy Storage Method

El Paso is known as the Sun City for a good reason. From blistering summers, to mild winters, the desert southwest knows the sun well.

On average, we experience more sunny days than any other kind of weather. And given the amount of energy the sun puts out every hour—enough to power the entire planet Earth for one year—you’d think converting to solar power would be the best option. But with the cost of solar paneling and converting buildings to use these options, it can be very a little expensive to make the change.

Surprisingly, the biggest drawback to solar power conversion may be the batteries. They store only a limited amount of the total energy received by the sun. This means power usage needs to be closely monitored. Gauges and meters must be observed in order to insure you have enough energy to use at night and during cloudy days. We won’t even talk about the recurring cost of replacing the batteries when needed.

But a change could soon be on the horizon.

A research team in Sweden has made a potential breakthrough in the ability to store solar energy. As an alternative to batteries, the team has developed a specialized fluid called Solar Thermal Fuel. Composed of carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen, the fluid can hold energy from the sun for long periods of time and expel it on demand in the form of heat. When the molecules are hit by sunlight, the bonds between atoms are rearranged. This chemical conversion traps energy within the molecules. The energy stays in the storage container even when the molecules cool down to room temperature.

When energy is needed, the molecules are passed through a catalyst. This process rearranges the chemical bonds back to what they were which releases a lot of heat. The hope is that this can be used in residential heating systems, water heaters, dishwashers, clothes dryers, and much more.

In a recent interview with NBC News, MIT engineer, Jeffrey Grossman explained, “A solar thermal fuel is like a rechargeable battery, but instead of electricity, you put sunlight in and get heat out, triggered on demand.”

The emissions-free energy system can now store energy for up to 18 years, according to nanomaterials scientist Kasper Moth-Poulsen from Chalmers University. In fact, the researchers claim their fluid are currently capable of holding 250 watt-hours of energy per kilogram. According to the NBC interview, that’s double the capacity of Tesla’s Powerwall batteries.

This has the potential to save money and cut down on pollution when it comes to the various heating needs of a home or commercial building. All that’s left is to figure out how to turn this energy into usable electricity for powering all our electronic devices.


For a daily dose of Everyday Astronomy with Amy, like and follow her Facebook Page; to read previous articles, click here.

Amy’s Everyday Astronomy: Is Mars Still Volcanically Active?

Since its discovery, Mars has always been a place of wonder for us Earthlings. From long ago beliefs that the deep canyons seen in telescopes were forged by water, to fear of invasion from little green men.

Mars fires the imagination of sci-fi literature and films, as well as the real science of current and future mission planning. And there’s no limit to the conspiracy theories that circulate about this planet named for the Roman God of War. Whatever the reason, Mars is almost always in the news.

The Red Planet falls within the habitable zone of our sun. And, indeed, many scientists believe Mars once housed oceans and rivers, and maybe even life of some type. But one of the really cool features of Mars is that it is also home to the largest volcano in the solar system, Olympus Mons.

Similar in size to the state of Arizona, Olympus Mons forms a strange triangular shape with three other volcanos in the region: Ascraeus Mons, Pavonis Mons, and Arsia Mons. Known as the Tharsis Volcanos, most of these haven’t been active for 2 million years.

Most recently, however, speculations and theories have run amok that Mars may still be volcanically active. With the recent closure of the solar observatory in New Mexico and even more recent YouTube outage, conspiracists believe that pictures taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter earlier this month show a plume of smoke being emitted by Arsia Mons.

That would bode well for any potential life that might inhabit the planet. If the volcanos were still active, that would mean subsurface water has a decent chance of being warm enough to support life.

Unfortunately, there’s more ice than fire about that plume captured in the photos. According to NASA, “These are ice-rich clouds over the summit of Arsia Mons.”

In reality, Arsia Mons hasn’t erupted in over 10 million years. Dr. Tanya Harrison, a member of NASA’s Opportunity rover team who specializes in Martian geology and weather patterns took to Twitter to dispel the myths.

“It’s not a plume of smoke, but rather water ice clouds condensing out over the summit of the Arsia Mons volcano. We see them quite often over this particular volcano. We see these clouds hang out over the summit of Arsia for weeks at a time during this time of year, every year,” Harrison writes.

In essence, that’s no Mons [eruption], that a stationary [ice cloud].


For a daily dose of Everyday Astronomy with Amy, like and follow her Facebook Page; to read previous articles, click here.

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