Archive for 'Astronomy'

Main Belt Comets

The Minor Planet Mailing List, a email list of asteroid fanatics, was buzzing yesterday about the discovery of cometary activity around main belt asteroid (596) Scheila…More information and picture here on Possible explanations include impact by a small object similar to what Dave Jewitt found on P/2010 A2 earlier this year or the ~113 km object actually being a large main belt comet which makes it even more interesting. I looked at the spectrum of 596 Scheila in the hope that it would resolve the issue as dead comets are likely to have a certain type of spectral signature and albedo or brightness. Looking at Planetary Data System Small Bodies Node where they archive all spectral data I see that the asteroid has a taxonomy of T…similar to the carbonaceous chondrite meteorite Tagish Lake….the spectrum is very read between 0.45-0.90 microns ..the visible wavelength range. A T type taxonomy would suggest a low albedo object and the red slope on the spectrum goes along with that interpretation…so it seems to be that 596 Scheila might actually be a large main belt comet. Looking through literature I found a near-IR spectrum which confirmed what I found in the visible, where the red slope continues. I think the next big spacecraft mission should be to one of these main belt comets as there is a lot of important science that can be done there…may be we can have a comet rover. The next question would be what kind of volatiles are going off (596) Scheila’s surface that is showing this activity….at ~2.9 AU from the Sun it is pretty cold out there and the asteroid is beyond 2.7 AU which is called the “snow line” where objects can accumulate ices on their surface.

I think that is enough science thinking for a Sunday morning….last week has been pretty busy as I made a lot of progress on the Vesta Phase Angle paper…my thrid paper on Vesta this year. My Diogenite Vestoid paper is now online…in case anyone wants to download it from Icarus. Apart from the paper I was invited to be one of the judges at a science fair at Sunset Beach Elementary on Wednesday. I had a chance to look at some really impressive science projects that the 6th graders put together. Really nice to see young kids learn about the scientific process early in life. That evening my friend Laura and I went to University of Hawaii to listen to one of my colleagues Dr Robert Jedicke give a talk titled “Einstein vs. Santa.” Rob is really gifted speaker and I learned a lot about how to communicate complex topics with the general public. On Friday night my friend Ken and I did a star party at Sunset Beach Elementary. In case anyone has not noticed it has been raining elephants here in Hawaii the last week. While the rain stopped, there was a thick overcast so we could barely see the moon. So Ken and I gave small presentations for the 25 odd people that showed up and they seem to have enjoyed it.  Next week is going to be busy with LPSC abstracts, and finishing the Vesta phase angle paper….off to Shark’s Cove now to snorkel!

Posted on 12 December '10 by , under Astronomy. 2 Comments.

Pandora, Pasadena, Paradise

Fall Colors in North Dakota

The three days I spent in Pandora are going to be my last for a long time. Fall in North Dakota is literally that. One fine day the temps drop by 30 deg over night and all the leaves fall. But this year I finally got to see some nice fall colors that reminded me of the time we had the DPS meeting at Cornell in Ithaca, NY. As my parting gift I named an asteroid after the founder of my aerospace school John D. Odegard that was approved by the IAU last month. Since I was there only for three days, the “official” ceremony to give the citation to John’s wife Diane took place this Friday at UND.

DPS meeting (Division of Planetary Sciences, American Astronomical Society) this year was in Pasadena, California. I was a little bummed that I didn’t get to give a talk but in the end it turned out to be a blessing as I had time to sit through talks and socialize. I was invited by the DPS to be its next Press Officer so I would act as a liaison between the media and the DPS members for the next three years. So I spent part of my days at the meeting shadowing the outgoing Press Officer Dr Sanjay Lamye of University of Wisconsin. Got a lot of good comments for my poster on phase angle (sun-vesta-earth angle) induced spectral and lightcurve effects on Vesta. This is some of the work we have been doing using our small telescope at Ironwood Remote Observatory and the NASA IRTF. I think the IRTF results are going to be shown at the NASA MOWG meeting next week.

Time to head back to paradise. I haven’t been back home in Hawai’i since Feb.! The longest stay this year has been in Rio…so I have a lot of unpacking in the days ahead. Hopefully there are no more trips this year!

Posted on 9 October '10 by , under Astronomy. No Comments.

America Calling

I have always been impressed by the INS now called the USCIS or US Citizenship and Immigration service. The flight out to Minneapolis was a lot better than getting to Amsterdam. First they put us on an MD11 which is like the worst plane on the planet. I think they only fly them from New Delhi to Amsterdam sector!! Then the entertainment system died on the plane. The food simply terrible. I tried to sleep but couldn’t so by the time I got to Amsterdam I was ready to crash! With all the work piled up, I managed to make my DPS poster, wrote a press release for a new asteroid naming, finished my annual report, spoke to family in Hawaii and India. So on the flight into the US I slept most of the way :)

Getting back to USCIS, so I arrive here and have to go through the same ritual everytime, questioning, then fingerprints, mug shot, customs. I walked up the USCIS agent.

Agent: Good evening

Me: Good evening

Agent: How are you?

Me: Tired and Sleepy

Agent: Why are you in the United States?

Me: To work

Agent: Where do you work?

Me: University of North Dakota

Agent: What do you do there?

Me: Assistant Research Professor…

Agent: What specific area?

Me: Astronomy, I study asteroids

Agent: Which aspect?

Me: If something is going to come and hit the earth I tell what its made of

Agent: Oh, So you study NEOs?

Me: Yes, Near-Earth Objects

Agent: You should be impressed that I know about NEOs

Me: I have been impressed by the people at the US embassy in India. They once asked me about ion tails in comets and dust production.

Agent: Really? “Right hand on the scanner please”

Me: Yeah, so you have to work harder to impress me.

Agent: Okay, When is the one that is going to go through the keyhole? What is called….Apophis?

Me: Yeah, that would be Friday, April 13, 2029.

Agent: Laughs and says “really Friday the 13th?” “Simple to the camera”

Me: Yeah, a buddy of mine (Roy Tucker) discovered it.

Agent: Is there a flyby earlier than that?

Me: Yeah in 2011 end or early 2012.

Agent: Welcome to the United States Sir

Seriously, why do I always run into people who know something about astronomy. I guess this is what Rohini and I talked about yesterday. The invisible bond that connects all of us to the heavens. For now I am glad to be legally inside the fence.

Posted on 28 September '10 by , under Astronomy. No Comments.

Total Package

Killing time at Amsterdam Schipol while waiting for flight out to Minneapolis is not difficult. This is my second favorite airport after Minneapolis….the worst being LAX…gwaaaah. Yesterday was a blast. My talk at the American Center organized by S.P.A.C.E was a packed house that ran for good 2 hours with lots of questions. I really get inspired talking and interacting with these kids.

After the talk and lunch I was interview by Rohini, rx an accomplished artist who was a member of Amateur Astronomers Association Delhi when I first joined it almost a decade ago. She was doing a documentary project studying what makes astronomers to be drawn to the night sky and how “we” are different from “others.” I really enjoyed putting the thoughts and opinions I had about astronomy into words. I have had this constant conflict in defining what is work and what is hobby since I switched to the “dark side” nearly 8 years ago. I recently had to google “vacation” after listening to colleagues whine about the lack of a long vacation. For me this whole thing has been an 8 year vacation. So I am not sure if I should cut everything off and do nothing for a week. God that would be so depressing!

Work has been piling up over the last week. I still have to write another NASA IRTF observing proposal that is due this Friday, write annual report about my work this year!, review a paper, make my poster for DPS, current and send out the dinosaur paper to co-authors, all this within the next 3 days. The jet lag is sure not going to be helping much in that aspect. May be I should get going on that poster while I kill time here at Schipol. Next stop….Pandora!

Posted on 28 September '10 by , under Astronomy. No Comments.

Third Wheel

While educating students and collaborating with professionals in India is a great way to boost planetary sciences, sale I always felt that amateur astronomers had an important role to play. They often have the passion which is sometimes lacking in my professional colleagues. I had an opportunity to do a small workshop in an Indian city called Pune (~100km from Mumbai) four years ago on asteroid and comet hunting. The group that organized it, JVP, is the oldest amateur astronomy organization dating back to pre-independent India. A bunch of their members told me then that they want to setup an observatory and do asteroid and comet astrometry and lightcurves of asteroids. It took them nearly five years but I was finally able to go back to Pune this past week and see their dream materialize.

A few members of this group spent their personal money (almost $30K) and purchased a 14-inch telescope + CCD and all the software (Picture below). Next few months they plan to conduct observations from Pune and get their IAU Observatory code (the first of its kind for amateurs in India….may be even professionals). While there are other IAU codes in India for professional observatories, none seem to be currently active. So it would be really a revolutionary thing for Indian astronomy to finally have an active IAU code contributing to asteroid science via comet and NEO follow up work. I gave a talk on the “Scientific Method” and then did a hands on activity about observing planning, data reduction and submitting MPC reports using Astrometrica. Some of the members expressed interest in the observational astronomy course that my colleague Paul Hardersen teaches at UND. So we might get some students for the program!

Last days in any place are always painful for me. None more than India. Strangely I have gotten used to the chaos that we seem to be so prolific in generating. I am going to miss a LOT of people…a few more than the others. But I leave as a better person, appreciating the little things I take for granted on the far side of the world. Last night my friend Vikrant and I drove through some old parts of New Delhi, old in memories. We had dinner at this small Chinese restaurant in South Ex called Daitche where I used to frequent when I was a journalist in The Asian Age. I not sure if it was nostalgic but I felt nice that the Dry Chilly Lamb was tasting the same and I was able appreciate it the same way when I made $40/month editing news stories. Life is never the same. :)

Members of JVP with their C14 telescope

Posted on 26 September '10 by , under Amateur Astronomy, Asteroids, Life. 4 Comments.

Moving India

My interaction with the planetary science group at SAC has been a humbling experience. India is a toddler in the planetary science community with just one mission, here we leaped our ground-based studies to space craft missions and had to catch up with nearly a century of knowledge on the moon. But what I saw at SAC was nothing short of spectacular. I always had a negative impression of things at Indian scientific institutions which are riddled with mundane bureaucratic procedures but despite the unfortunate legacy left behind by our British colonists our young scientists seem to be turning the tide with their heroic efforts. I am very optimistic that India will play a leading role in future space craft missions especially to small bodies.

My talk was well received but I think I did panic 3/4 into it and rushed the last bit. I made a few people laugh and inspired a few others to study asteroids. I got a nice little clock from the director of SAC for my talk which I found pretty sweet. ISRO logo is also that comes straight out of Star Trek…very similar to starfleet logo! Lot of collaborative possibilities and the hope is that I do a week long workshop next time I am in India on small bodies science at SAC.

Work has been piling up so this weekend I have a lot of catching up to do. Next stop is a small city south of Mumbai called Pune. There is a small group of dedicated amateurs from an organization called JVP (the oldest amateur astronomy group in India) who are building an observatory to do asteroid/comet astrometry and photometry. I did a workshop for them 5 years ago on discovering small bodies so this observatory is a result of that. Going to be giving a bunch of talks and some hands on observing if the weather is good tonight and tomorrow night.

Posted on 23 September '10 by , under Astronomy. No Comments.


Of the 50 odd segments I flew this year, I had the worst landing yesterday when my Jet Airways flight from Chennai landed in Mumbai airport. Like a Antonov 225 trying to land on an aircraft carrier in high seas, the plane bounced around a couple of time before coming to a halt. Coming to Ahmedabad (a city in the western Indian state of Gujarat) has always been an exciting feeling. This city is host to the Physical Research Laboratory and ISRO’s Space Application Center (SAC), the two places in India where they do planetary science research. My good friend Satadru (who worked at Max-Planck last October) invited me over to SAC to give a couple of talks to the newly-formed Planetary Sciences group and discuss some collaborative projects.

As day 1 of the 2 day stay, I had to experience what I would describe as the Indian-version of ITAR...only this time applied to Indian citizens! If you don’t know what ITAR is check out this link. Getting into SAC required me to send my passport information, serial number of laptop, apparently flash drives, CDs or any portable media…even cell phones are not allowed inside! So obviously cameras are a big no here! My talk today was to the PS group, we had about 25 people or so. I was originally planning to talk about reflectance spectroscopy but it later turned out to be on some recent work Vesta and the mantle fragment we have detected. Had to rush through 50 slides in 50 mins but in the end I had a LOT of good questions. Tomorrow I have a public talk on the dinosaurs. Have some real cool results to show from our latest paper I worked in Rio. No photos :(

Posted on 21 September '10 by , under Astronomy. No Comments.

Bangalore Workshop

A long day but was a lot of fun talking to students and amateurs. About half of the people who registered showed up, so we had about 35-40 students, parents, amateur astronomers (even a former ISRO employee!) My first two talks (Overview of Planetary Sciences, and What do astronomer do) went pretty fast, partly because I was nervous as usual and blew threw my first talk in 25 mins rather than the 45 mins I was supposed to talk. Thankfully Bangalore Astronomical Society Vice President and my good friend Naveen (who drove 6 hours from Chennai to make it to my workshop) stepped in and gave a nice talk on detection and study of extrasolar planets. After lunch I had just one talk on Pro-Am collaboration followed by a nice discussion on topics ranging from the moon hoax to how to become an astronaut!

Have a overnight train journey back to Chennai and then a shower before I head to the airport again for Ahmedabad for 4 days at ISRO’s Space Application Center!

A few images from the workshop!

Posted on 19 September '10 by , under Astronomy. No Comments.

Bangalore Mania

The six-hour train ride to Bangalore from Chennai was mostly painless as I could avoid the cattle class (called third here). Like the rest of India, for sale Bangalore is growing like a cancer, salve traffic is terrible, discount too many people and infrastructure is falling apart. But the city has a very rich astronomy history dating back to the days of John Herschel who conducted some observations of the southern skies from the city. The Bangalore Astronomical Society hosted a nice dinner last night so I had the honor of having dinner with some really enthusiastic amateur astronomers who are starting to think about getting into some simple science projects like cometary astrometry and asteroid lightcurves over the next few months.

The prep for the workshop is now over. I got some press for the event in a local daily. Here is the link. We have about 75 people registered with more expected to just show up. Should be a fun Sunday. Tomorrow I head to the western Indian city of Ahmedabad but will try and post some pictures of the workshop before I catch my plane!

Posted on 18 September '10 by , under Astronomy. No Comments.

Busy week

Its just mid-week and I already feel like its Friday. Monday I had to the ritual every immigrant worker has to…get a visa at the US embassy. The process was relatively painless with the visa officer asking the standard question “Isn’t North Dakota really cold?” and then feeling bad for me and with a sad face “your visa has been approved, you will get your passport in 1 week.” I got my passport today!

Coming to India means as chance to interact with a lot of school kids, college kids, amateur astronomers, professional colleagues. It is a way for me to dump all (however little) I have learned in the past year and share it with them. Typically school and college kids who are into astronomy don’t know how or where to go to get a better education and make this their career. Amateurs want to turn pros and do this for a living. But the education system here in India is very rigid, so if you don’t decide in 8th grade what you want to do in your life you are stuck with something you hate. So I am constantly asked how they can change their lives around and do astronomy. To address these issues I do workshops at schools and astronomy clubs around India every time I visit.

This time around I am going to be doing a workshop on careers in planetary sciences. While India has an active astronomy scene, planetary science is just starting with the moon mission. So I thought it would be a great idea to expose kids about what people can do in planetary science. The workshop will be in Bangalore this Sunday and is organized by the Bangalore Astronomical Society. Here is the link in case you want to see the topics. Next Monday I will be flying to Ahmedabad in western India to give a couple of talks at Indian Space Research Organization’s Space Application Center (SAC). SAC is building a lot of instruments for the Chandrayaan 2 mission and has a new planetary geology group. So I was invited there to give a public lecture, which will be an update on the talk I gave in DLR Berlin on dinosaur extinction and a smaller talk to the planetary group on asteroid spectroscopy. Next Sunday I will be in New Delhi on my way back and will be giving a public talk organized by S.P.A.C.E at the American Center on “Discovery in Astronomy: A lifetime of cosmic adventures.” Not sure what I am really going to talk as I made up the topic on the fly! All these talks means making powerpoints all day! Each one taking 8 hours at least. On top of all this the IRTF proposals are due the month end so been busy writing two of them up and still need to make the poster for DPS which is going to happen during my 6-hour layover in Amsterdam Schipol on my way back to Pandora!

Posted on 15 September '10 by , under Astronomy. No Comments.

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