Hurricanes | Zooniverse Helps Relief Efforts

Zooniverse is a citizen science network. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers worldwide who take part in science projects online. I participate in several and wrote about Zooniverse in a previous post. Researchers invite volunteers to take part in many types of projects from astronomy to zoology.

Recent hurricanes in the Caribbean islands caused much loss of life and damage to property and ecosystems. Zooniverse volunteers were asked to help relief efforts by examining satellite images of the islands before and after the hurricanes. By comparing before-after images of the same places, structural damages, flooding, road blockage, and temporary housing were assessed. Color coded maps were made from the assessments showing the places most in need of relief efforts. Rapid response was extremely important. Here is an example of one of those ‘heat maps’ of the island of St. Thomas. Red and purple show the greatest need for help.

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SpaceX | How They Do Booster Landings

SpaceX, the private rocket launching company owned by Elon Musk, has had successes lately with commercial satellite launches. On 1 May 2017, they launched the military satellite NROL-76 from historic Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Another major accomplishment by SpaceX is the successful landings and re-use of the stage 1 booster of the Falcon 9 rocket. This has never been done before, not even by NASA. The way I see it, that story deserves some explanation.

Watch this compilation of clips from the most recent booster landing, their 4th. The landing takes place on an unused pad not far from launch complex 39A a short distance up the coast. I wondered what flight path the stage 1 booster took to allow it to return back to this spot near the launch site. Most of its fuel had been used to get it and the stage 2 payload to high altitude, far downrange, and going very fast. The flight needed to be very efficient.

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Vatican Observatory Tour

I follow the blog The Catholic Astronomer from the Vatican Observatory Foundation. I’ve heard of the Vatican Observatory for a long time but never knew much about it. It sits a above an extinct volcanic lake at Castel Gandolfo in the Papal Gardens near Rome.

© Paul A. Zalonski

Very recently, the observatory director and foundation director led a tour of the place. Joining them was Christopher Graney who is an astronomy teacher in Louisville, KY. He recorded videos for his class to see later. His videos are posted here on the blog site.

Scroll to the bottom of his post and click the left of three small images about the history and telescopes. His link will take you to the three videos.

One aspect of interest in the tour was of the women computers who worked there and their machine used to measure stars on the glass plates. It connected well with the work of the women computers in The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel. Those women laid the foundations for many of the important principles used in modern astronomy.

Pluto | What Have We Learned?

Top findings by scientists with the New Horizons Pluto Mission were published in March 2016 in the journal Science. A list of the highlights is available in this news release from NASA. I will attempt to summarize each finding and their significance.

Images used in this post are from Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. Click on any for a much larger and impressively detailed view. Their entire collection of released images is available here for your browsing pleasure. I encourage you to look through the images. Our views of Pluto went from a tiny mottled orb a year ago to ones with great detail and mystery. Each of the 120+ images includes an explanation of the important details.

Now on to the top findings…

1. Geologically active

The ages of solar system bodies can be estimated by counting the number of craters. This method tells us Pluto is about 4 billion years old, a little younger than Earth. The heart-shaped light colored, icy region called Sputnik Planum is devoid of cratering. That indicates it is young no more than 10 million years. Sputnik Planum is smooth and about the size of Texas.

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Dawn | Views From LAMO

The Dawn spacecraft is in low altitude mapping orbit (LAMO) around the dwarf planet Ceres at an altitude of 240 mi (385 km), closer than the Space Station orbits Earth. Amazing detail is being imaged and analyzed. Some of those features are highlighted in this brief Jet Propulsion Lab video. Visit this link for previous posts about Dawn.


A recent enhanced image in color of Occator crater. Click to embiggen for greatest detail.