The night opened with few clouds and a bright waxing gibbous moon. Alex and I, interns at the National Air and Space Museum, stood outside with Sean O'Brien, astronomy educator at the Museum and Albert Einstein Planetarium technician, to survey the sky and anticipate the night. This was my first star party at the Museum. As we set up, the first line of visitors formed outside the door of the Public Observatory waiting for 6 p.m. — opening time. We set up the Tele Vue telescope first. The view was spectacular. Along the terminator, the line between the dark and light sides of the Moon, craters popped between the stark white of the moon and the blue of the sky.
Here is a riddle: What takes more than 60 locations, 5 years, and 150 scientists to decide? The landing site for the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover Curiosity. Picking the landing site for a spacecraft to land on another planet is always serious business. And the job of finding the best location for Curiosity to set down on Mars was no exception. Curiosity’s mission is geared towards understanding whether Mars could have ever been habitable.
Most people know that satellites in orbit do useful things such as collect images of the Earth's surface. At the National Air and Space Museum I use satellite images in my job to understand changes in the Earth's land surface.
Today at 8:45 pm EDT (March 18, 2011, 12:45 am UTC), MESSENGER will become the first spacecraft ever to enter Mercury's orbit. With MESSENGER on the last leg of its journey, I’m reminded how long it has taken to get there. I watched the spacecraft launch in the early morning hours of August 3, 2004, almost six and a half years ago. Now after one flyby of Earth, two flybys of Venus, and three flybys of Mercury, the spacecraft will catch up with Mercury again, but this time it will be captured by the planet. You might think as one of our closest neighbors in the Solar System it would take a lot less time to get into Mercury orbit – but because Mercury is the closest planet to the Sun, at a distance where the influence of the Sun’s gravity is much greater, it is a challenge to reach and orbit.
I first thought of putting together a book on planetary tectonics when I was working on a general subject matter book on the planets in the mid 1990’s. That book had a “comparing the planets” section where I showed examples of tectonic landforms on Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. Tectonic landforms are created when forces act on solid crustal material and they are found on objects of all sizes in the solar system.
To get to Antarctica, I first flew on commercial flights from Washington, D.C. to Christchurch, New Zealand. While in Christchurch, I picked up special gear for the cold and harsh conditions in Antarctica from the US Antarctic Program Clothing Distribution Center. Several days later, I boarded a C-17 plane bound for McMurdo Station, Antarctica. In November, the temperatures are still cold enough that the sea ice surrounding McMurdo is used as a runway for aircraft. As I first stepped off the plane in Antarctica onto that expansive sheet of snow-covered ice, I was greeted by a blast of icy air, biting wind, and an amazing view of Mt. Erebus, the southernmost historically active volcano. It was so beautiful, it almost took my breath away!