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Tillyer’s News From the High Frontier

February 2014

-Even on Mars, some times the simplest explanation is the truth. The infamous jelly donut rock that caused all the consternation actually appeared in front of Curiosity because it was run over. Just like the tractor-trailer that kicks up a stone into your windshield on the highway, Curiosity’s treaded wheels flipped the rock in front of the camera. Scientists reviewed the rock and checked against the surface the rover traversed and found similar material in Curiosity’s trail. Mystery solved. Now that the kerfluffle is over, the rover can get back to its mission. In fact since the Martian winter is ending and Curiosity is becoming exposed to longer periods of sun, it can store greater energy to fuel its explorations.

-Sometimes you don’t have to improve on something when it works so well. The European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter will be wearing a very different coat of paint as it approaches the sun. In fact that coat of paint will bear a distinct resemblance to the same paint that was used in primitive cave art. Black calcium phosphate is the answer to surviving the 968 degrees that the orbiter will be exposed to as it moves in closer than Mercury to the sun to take a good look. That substance is found in paints

resulting from burned bone residue. It meets the requirements of not altering its make up under the intense temperature and causing incorrect readings by the probes delicate instruments; it has to be resistant to ultraviolet radiation so that its thermal optic nature will not change; it should also not build up a static charge due to the sensitive instrumentation of the probe and it needs to be able absorb and reradiate heat. What really makes the black calcium phosphate coating work is that it actually bonds with the metal and imbues its surface with the required properties rather than existing merely as a surface covering like a typical paint. The Solar Orbiter is currently set to launch in 2017.

Tillyer’s News From the High Frontier

January 2014

Not just Earth, but Super Earth—bigger may not be better, but also closer to us than we thought. First, by Super Earth we mean a terrestrial rocky planet with a mass up to that of Neptune and greater than that of Earth. Initially Astronomers believed that most of these worlds would be too hot to support life and a great deal of them were found in orbits so close to their suns that they were outside of the Goldilocks zone. Interestingly enough things seemed to tip over in the opposite direction after traces of water were found in the spectrums of exoplanets. Now a new theory came forward that seemed to indicate that these Super Earths would be the exact opposite—waterworlds. Three quarters of the Earth may be covered in water, but it doesn’t mean that a significant percentage of our world’s mass is water. If water made up more than 1% of the Earth’s mass, then the Earth would be more likely to be a waterworld, despite global warming, ice cap melting, etc. There is a feedback cycle between the mantle and the ocean where water goes back and forth and the balance is what allows dry land to continue to support life as we know it. Scientists have used this cycle in their calculations with regards to Super Earths and found that these worlds could actually be even more earthlike than we imagined. So if we need real estate, there may be ever more of it out there than we imagined. Now, on the other hand there are still plenty Super Earths out there that don’t even come close to the word “Earth” such as worlds that might be up 50% diamond or have they could actually be miniature Neptunes with solid cores and deep Atmospheres and only appear to be Super Earths. There are so many worlds out there and that means that the likelihood that we can find one similar to ours is that much greater—even if it is supersized...

Tillyer’s News From the High Frontier

November 2013

-The Dream Chaser Space plane came down a little rough in an unmanned landing at Edwards Air Force Base. In testing similar to the space shuttles, the Dream Chaser dropped from 12,500 feet and things proceeded smoothly until skidding off the runway due to a malfunction in the landing gear on the left side. The shuttle is in good shape with even minimum damage to the landing gear and at no point did the landing computers stop working. There are tests for a piloted landing next year and the controllers expressed the opinion that the issue was purely mechanical in nature and under investigation.

-Comet ISON has jumped into the naked eye category for observation as it nears the sun. Heating in the comet has caused its luminosity to increase. ISON will make its closest approach to the sun on Thanksgiving Day and if it continues without shattering it has the potential to create a fantastic display for us in December.

-Astronomers have discovered an odd object in the Kuiper Belt (former home of the nucleus that makes up Comet ISON), a little wordlet so light that it could float in water. 2002 UX25 is causing some consternation because it doesn’t fit into the standard idea of how the larger objects in the Belt would have formed. Objects like Eris and Quaor have densities high enough that they are believed to be the result of the amalgamation of smaller bodies. However, if midsized 2002 UX25 is a building block for larger objects then they couldn’t end up as dense as they are.

-Feel like saving astronomical history? You can contribute to a kickstarter to digitize the 220,000 photographic plates that make up the Astronomical Photographic Data Archive located in Western North Carolina. The images constitute over a million hours of telescope time and date as far back as 1898.

Tillyer’s News From the High Frontier

October 2013

-Water among the stars—our first confirmation of extraterrestrial water on a rocky world comes from an unlikely source. 170 light years away around a star named GD 61 a small world died when its sun became a white dwarf. Among its wreckage lie the telltale signatures of water. So now we proof that worlds other than ours can have water. Sadly our proof comes late from the world around GD 61 for its demise was not the 170 years that it took light to reach us, but rather 200 million years ago when its sun expired.

-What goes around, comes around and sometimes it hits hard—scientists believe that a small black pebble found in the desert of Egypt is the missing evidence that a comet struck the Earth. Hypatia, the pebble, named for Hypatia of Alexandria is covered with a girl's best friend– diamonds. The sparklers are the result of a shock and high-pressure impact when the comet struck the atmosphere 28 million years ago. The impact turned 2300 square miles of sand into a yellow glass from the 3600 degree temperature. One piece of this glass actually was found among Tutanhamen’s jewelry. Prior to Hypatia’s discovery the only cometary material to research was recovered by NASA and ESA, tiny dust particles in the upper atmosphere and carbon dust in Antarctic ice. Comets contain within them the evidence of the state of the early solar system and now with Hypatia, scientists have a larger sample to learn from than before.

-The weather on Jupiter and Saturn is shinier than we thought. Astronomers announced that in the maelstroms of the gas giants atmospheres may lie as much as 10 million tons of diamonds. Uranus and Neptune due to the extreme pressure of their atmospheres and high internal temperatures are thought to produce diamonds in the atmosphere that would then fall down into their interiors. Lightning storms on Jupiter and Saturn create situations that will cause methane to disassociate into its component atoms freeing up the necessary carbon. Once the carbon atoms fall further into the atmosphere, the pressure and heat cause them to go through various transformations that end up as diamonds. The fantastic temperatures of Jupiter exceed the threshold of 8k degrees where diamonds melt. When the diamonds reach this point they may actually melt into a sea of liquid diamond.

Tillyer’s News From the High Frontier

September 2013

-Lunar crawlers are the new thing at Astrobotic and their practicing on Earth before heading up to the moon. In 2009 lava tubes and natural skylights were filmed by Japan’s Kayuga spacecraft and their presence has inspired a robotics firm to develop a rover designed for exploration. The lava tubes may prove to be useful to lunar explorers as well as potential settlers because of their insulating value as well as the possibility of water ice. The Google Lunar XPRIZE is intent on creating a consistent drive towards exploration of our natural satellite to the tune of 40 million dollars in prizes. Of course we’ll want to test things out on Earth first before shipping off valuable rovers. To secure an XPRIZE, a rover must travel at least 500 meters on or below the lunar surface and send back a minimum of 2 mooncasts to Earth. What interesting is Astrobotic is in our own backyard—based out of Pittsburgh, PA.

-ExoMars could detect bacteria even if they were alive a long time ago. The latest rover, destined to launch in 2018 will contain an instrument called a Raman Spectrometer, so scientists decided to put it to the test. They created test bacteria that they believe would survive on Mars and used the spectrometer to test how bacteria might change over extended periods of radiation. The results bear out that ExoMars can detect the presence of bacteria even if they are not currently alive.

-Newly discovered Comet Lovejoy will join ISON and Encke in the November sky. Terry Lovejoy, an Aussie astronomer turned in his fourth comet on September 9th. The new comet is not expected to be as bright as ISON and will be primarily a telescope object as it is expected to max out at magnitude 8, where the human eye can see down to magnitude 6. ISON on the other hand will fall in the 2-3 magnitude range.

Tillyer’s News From the High Frontier

August 2013

-Our own star could be flipping soon. As part of its eleven year solar cycle, the sun will very likely flip its south and north poles in the next three to four months. This is a known phenomenon and occurs at the peak of the solar cycle. The north pole has already changed its polarity and the south will soon follow. What this effects is what is known as the “current sheet” which is the effect of the electric current induced by the rotating magnetic field of the sun. With the polarity flipping the current sheet will develop a series of waves which the earth will pass through. As we move through the uneven sheet we will actually have better protection from cosmic rays because there is more area to the sheet to deflect them, however there is likely to be an increase in solar weather and potential auroras.

-Another sun was not as lucky as ours as the Nova Delphinus 2013 recently surprised astronomer Koichi Itagaki. The initial magnitude of the nova was below what is visible to the naked eye, but things changed recently and the intensity increased so that the nova can now be seen without visual aid. As noted by its name, the nova is in the constellation Delphinus which is located between the Summer Triangle of Vega, Deneb and Altair. At midnight, the constellation is a proximately 2/3 of the way up the sky and viewing is best in an area of limited stray light interference. Naked eye novas occur on average about every decade with the brightest recent one observed in 1975.

Tillyer’s News From the High Frontier

July 2013


-Even though we don’t treat Pluto as a planet any longer, at least we are no longer calling its most recently discovered satellites P4 & P5. Typical naming nomenclature allows the discoverers to christen the newly found object, however Mark Showalter and his team decided to put things to a vote and opened up nominations to anyone in February. After tons of input- including a suggestion of Vulcan by one William Shatner, which drew in quite a bit of support- Showalter went to the International Astronomical Union with two candidates—Vulcan and Cerberus. That was where the trouble started. Vulcan unfortunately is a little too popular and there are already too many objects named Vulcan (this provoked an online rant from one  Shatner…). Sadly Cerberus was already and asteroid. So Showalter offered the greek spelling Kerberos and the third place Styx and these were accepted by the IAU. So here are Pluto’s satellites in order from closest to Pluto outwards: Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra.


-Our solar system has a tail. It’s not an astounding discovery because scientists have expected that the solar wind emanating from our solar system would cause a comet like tail away from the direction of our motion through the galaxy. Nobody guessed it would have four lobes like a clover. IBEX, the Interstellar Boundary Explorer satellite has been looking at the

exterior of our solar system and has mapped out the structure of the tail which is also larger and longer than expected. The lobes are the result of two regions of fast moving separated by two more regions of slow moving particles. Unsuprisingly, this is now known as the Heliotail.

Tillyer’s News From the High Frontier

June 2013


-Details concerning the death of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin have finally been released in Russia. In 1961 Gagarin became the first man to orbit the Earth for 108 minutes in the Vostok 1. Gagarin then went on to become the Cosmonaut Training Center’s Director. He was actually preparing for a second space flight in 1968 when his Mig-15 crashed. There’s been little information about the accident until now 45 years later. Fellow cosmonaut Aleksey Leonov recently revealed details about the accident that took Gagarin’s life. Previously the government report indicated that Gagarin attempted to avoid a foreign object leading to a tailspin and the resultant crash. The reality is an unauthorized Su-15 fighter flew too close to Gagarin’s Mig and disrupted the planes flight. Gagarin did not follow standard procedure in such an incident causing the tailspin. The pilot of the Su-15 is still alive and remains anonymous, which was a condition set when Leonov received the information.


-Rovers are on the move once again on Mars. NASA is moving Opportunity to a new location in preparation for the next Martian Winter. Since 2011 Opportunity has been at work in Endeavour Crater. Opportunity did make an interesting find before leaving the crater. Scientists directed the rover to grind the surface off of a lighter colored target and the rock revealed evidence of clay minerals. This excited scientists because the make up of the rock does not include evidence of acidic water which has been the primary type found so far.  Plans are to move Opportunity about 1.5 miles south of its current location. Curiosity is also preparing to be mobile after its prolonged stay in the Gale Crater. Mount Sharp about 5 miles away is the destination set by scientists, some of whom are anxious to experiment on the layered rock visible on its surface. But Curiosity is not going to be in a rush. Scientists have already realized there is plenty to discover nearby like an ancient streambed even though Curiosity has only driven a half a mile. The journey is expected to take 9 months to a year. Plenty of time for more discoveries.