Tag Archives: John McLaren

A look at the Perseverance mission to Mars

Astronomy events are few and far between these days as clubs cope with stay-at-home restrictions and institutional closures in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Most meetings and public star parties have been canceled for March and April while a few wait to see how events unfold.

Like some in arts and entertainment, astronomy clubs are looking for ways to take at least some of their activities online. Case in point, the Seattle Astronomical Society last week held its monthly meeting using the Zoom videoconferencing platform. Members enjoyed a presentation by SAS president John McLaren, who also is a NASA Solar System Ambassador, about the upcoming Perseverance mission to Mars.

A history of Mars exploration

McLaren gave a quick history of Mars exploration, from Mariner 4 which sent 21 photos back from Mars after a fly by in 1965 to the present work of Curiosity. He noted that Viking 1 in 1976 sent back the first photo from the surface of Mars. It was no accident that it shot its own foot.

Viking's foot on Mars
The first Viking 1 photo from Mars. Credit: NASA

“If we can only get one picture back, this is the most important picture, because they want to see how well the landing gear performed,” McLaren explained. “If they can see how the landing gear did, it gives them an idea of how they can improve the next lander.”

Unfortunately, experiments conducted by Viking were thought to rule out the possibility of life on Mars, though McLaren noted that there’s still some discussion about whether those experiments were conducted and interpreted properly. In any event, the zeal for Mars exploration cooled somewhat until the mid-1990s, when a Mars meteor discovered on Earth was found to contain what could be fossilized bacteria. This sparked new scientific interest in the Red Planet.

We returned to the surface of Mars in 1997 with Sojourner and Pathfinder, which proved we could land and drive around a rover on Mars.

“It truly was the Pathfinder that led us to design more sophisticated vehicles,” McLaren said. Spirit and Opportunity followed in 2004 and Curiosity landed in 2012.

Same car, new features

Perseverance, known as Mars 2020 until a recently concluded naming contest, will be something of a souped-up version of Curiosity. It’s based on the same design, but they’ve re-engineered the wheels, as those on Curiosity showed heavy wear unexpectedly early in its mission. Perseverance will also carry different instruments more specialized for astrobiology and geology. It will drill core samples and leave them cached on Mars awaiting a possible future return mission. And its cameras in general are more powerful and versatile than those of Curiosity. It’s mission is different, too. While Spirit and Opportunity were sent to follow the water and Curiosity is trying to figure out if Mars could have supported microbial life, Perseverance will actually be looking for evidence of that life.

Perseverance landing site on Mars
A photo by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter of the planned landing site for Perseverance. The target is the smooth, purple-ish area to the right of what looks like a river delta. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

A big challenge for the engineers will be delivering Perseverance to its landing site, which is in a crater called Jezero on the edge of what appears to have once been a lowland sea. There’s what looks like a former river delta on the edge of Jezero crater.

“The hope is that water was here for a long time, water flowed down here building this silt, that this is the most likely location where they hope to find any signs of life,” McLaren said.

A small target

The challenge is that the landing ellipse, the target they need to hit, is ten times smaller by area than that of Curiosity and some 300 times smaller than Pathfinder’s. They’ll used a technologically enhanced version of the sky crane technique that worked for Curiosity to try to hit that target.

The window for a possible launch opens on July 17 this year and McLaren said NASA expects to land Perseverance on Mars on February 18, 2021.

You can watch a recording of McLaren’s presentation on the Seattle Astronomical Society website.

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Goldendale Sky Village gives amateur astronomers dedicated observing site

Amateur astronomers in the Seattle area have been dreaming of a clear, dark place from which to observe the heavens since the clouds rolled in and light pollution obliterated much of the night sky. Those dreams are coming true at the Goldendale Sky Village just east of that south central Washington town.

om GSV
It’s dark at Goldendale Sky Village. This image made at the site was created by Mark Vinup.

The Goldendale Sky Village (GSV) is owned by a limited liability company (LLC) of the same name, made up of members with interest in astronomy. The effort to establish the GSV is the end result of a search several decades in the making.

Most recently, the Seattle Astronomical Society (SAS) took a run at establishing a dark-sky observing site beginning in about 2005. Three years later, the project was tabled because the society couldn’t reconcile two desired criteria for the site: clear, dark skies and convenient proximity to Seattle. (I wrote about the end of the project for the April 2008 issue of the SAS newsletter, The Webfooted Astronomer.)

In 2016 Stephanie Anderson, a co-owner of Seattle’s Cloud Break Optics who was president of the SAS at the time, wanted to re-start the initiative and recruited SAS member Christopher Smythies, who is now the general manager of GSV, to head up the search.

Searching for the spot

“For two years I went out east of the mountains and familiarized myself with the land,” Smythies said. His focus was on two areas: Cle Elum and Goldendale. He found Cle Elum to be prohibitively expensive, and most parcels of land available for sale there were intended for housing and carried restrictions.

“Goldendale had a lot of attractive things about it,” Smythies said. “It was darker, the land was much cheaper, the rules were much looser, but it was further away.”

Smythies figures he must have looked at more than 100 properties over the course of a couple of years. By the time of the annual SAS Spring Star Party in May 2018 at Brooks Memorial State Park near Goldendale, he had a list of five of them for attendees to check out. The last of those that they visited is the one that is now Goldendale Sky Village.

“I immediately knew that was going to be it,” he said. “It was very remote, it was relatively flat, there were low horizons. It was pretty land; it wasn’t scrub land or pasture land, it was very attractive land with nice vegetation on it. And it was relatively cheap.”

“I thought it was perfect,” Smythies added. Unexpected bonuses include a line of sight to a communication tower that gives the site Internet access, and a great view of Mt. Hood to the west. There is federal land and open prairie nearby that will likely remain unoccupied, so future light intrusion isn’t a big concern.

LLC created for site

By this time the Seattle Astronomical Society had cooled to the idea of owning and operating a dark-sky site. Current president John McLaren said cost was a big concern. SAS would have had to do a major, multi-year fundraising effort or raise dues drastically to cover costs. Neither seemed likely to fly given the varying visions SAS members have for such a site. They considered trying to build a coalition with other regional astronomy clubs.

“That looked like it would be a legal headache,” McLaren noted. Running the site also would have created administrative tasks, including IRS reporting, that would have placed a burden on the club. The SAS board opted out.

“At that point, I decided to go another route to form a private group of people, an LLC, and then make it available to the SAS later on,” Smythies said. In June he put out a call for possible investors in the site.

“Within six weeks, two of which I was on vacation, we had 21 people saying ‘I’m in,’” he said. Smythies believes that a turning point for the project was when Anderson and Cloud Break Optics co-owner Matt Dahl signed on.

“She and Matt have such a good reputation for being kind of the hub of the astronomy community because of Cloud Break Optics, that once they said they wanted to be a part of it it was like a stamp of approval and everyone else piled on,” he said.

Clearing the telescope field at GSV
Astronomy can be hard work. Goldendale Sky Village members clear rocks from the future telescope field, the National Dark-Sky Portal. Photo: Christopher Smythies.

Original members paid $1,000 per share in the new LLC. That entitled them to use of their own 2,500 square-foot parcel within the village. They sold more than 100 shares and by the end of July had the cash to buy the land. The purchase became final in September 2018. Since then they’ve made improvements to the road into the property, created parking space, and moved “a billion” rocks and boulders to create a smooth place for the village’s central telescope field, known as “The National Dark-Sky Portal.” They’re planning for improvements that include a big tent, the Red Light Lounge, for sharing refreshments and shelter from the elements. Work this summer may include bringing electricity to the site as well.

It takes a village

Smythies says the village aspect of the GSV is vitally important.

“I wanted to put together something where people have lots, sure, but then there’s common areas right in the middle where they put their telescopes out and they observe together,” he said. This differs from some large astronomy communities where people might build a home on a two-acre plot. “Goldenndale sky village is all close together to promote the community atmosphere and the learning.”

While the GSV is a private company they intend to invite guests often. They hope to be ready by this year to host the SAS and its spring and fall star parties, and would like to build a similar relationship with the Rose City Astronomers in Portland, which is actually closer to the site. Smythies dreams of an astrophotography school and other educational efforts at the village.

The SAS hasn’t given up on creating observing sites. McLaren, who is a member of GSV, said SAS members also crave a dedicated site within 30 minutes of the city and one perhaps in the Cle Elum or Ellensburg areas, that might offer better observing conditions and still be relatively convenient. He hopes the Goldendale Sky Village model can be a good template for creating more observing sites.

“That would be awesome if it happened,” McLaren said, “and if some day astronomy clubs were able to negotiate access to all three locations that would be amazing.”

Smythies says there is room for perhaps 60 to 70 members at Goldendale Sky Village. The current price to join is $2,500 per share with a minimum of four shares. You can check out the site at an open house on March 21. Contact Smythies if you’re interested.

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Photos from Goldendale Sky Village

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APOD: more than just pretty pictures

The Astronomy Picture of the Day is more than just a pretty photo. In fact, each of the featured images may well have more than a thousand words packed into it. You just need to drill down deeper into the site.

John McLaren, a NASA Solar System Ambassador and treasurer of the Seattle Astronomical Society, gave a presentation about APOD at the society’s meeting last week. He said the key to finding a wealth of information about celestial objects is dragging your eyes away from the pretty pictures long enough to notice the explanation of the photo and, more importantly, the submenu below it. McLaren uses this information when preparing presentations about astronomy for various groups.

“You can build a more complete story,” he explained. “There are good links here for education, for outreach, and home-schooling groups.”

You’ve probably noticed that the explanations of the photos use plenty of links to further information. Below the explanation there’s typically a set of “more on” links about objects or content. The real prize, though is in the index, a fully searchable listing of what’s on the APOD site.

That’s a lot of stuff. McLaren noted that the site was started by Robert Nemiroff and Jerry Bonnell when both worked at the Goddard Space Flight Center. The first posts were in June of 1995, and there have been more than eight thousand of them since. McLaren pointed out that when you look at the site, it is very 1995. There’s no flash or fancy moving menus. It’s pretty straight HTML, and the authors figured that changing things would run the risk of breaking a zillion links to APOD information.

Earth from Apollo 17

The Earth from Apollo 17
Picture Credit: NASA, Apollo 17, NSSDC

They don’t update the photos published, either. Clicking on each photo gives you the best version of it that they have. The one at left, a photo of Earth taken from Apollo 17 in 1972, was posted in the first week of APOD’s operation. When McLaren showed this photo on the big screen during his presentation, there was some laughter about its low resolution. He reminded us that in 1995 we were probably dialing in to the Internet with a 2400 baud modem, and that wouldn’t deliver the high-res goods in the manner to which we’ve become accustomed in our broadband world.

Click the “archive” link on each page and you’ll find a long scroll, day by day, of every APOD ever. The “index” link takes you to a menu of stars, galaxies, and nebulae, solar system objects, space technology, people, and the sky. Clicking on these will give you a handful of “editors’ choice” photos they consider to be the most educational on the chosen subject.

McLaren found this photo, the APOD of October 20, 2002, of the space shuttle docked with the Russian Mir space station in 1995. It made him wonder who took it. Was it the first known selfie?

Shuttle and Mir

The Space Shuttle Docked with Mir. Credit: Nikolai Budarin, Russian Space Research Institute, NASA

“Since it was the first docking, they wanted to get good information about how the two spacecraft functioned together,” McLaren explained. “So one of the Soyuz crews on Mir actually undocked their Soyuz spacecraft, did a fly-around, and observed the combination.” All of that was found by following the links on the photo page.

Astrophotographers who aspire to be published on APOD may well wish to check out its index of Messier objects. McLaren points out that many of the objects in the index are represented by numbers, not pictures.

“They don’t have photos of all the Messier objects posted yet, so if you submit a good color picture of them you may get your photo as the astronomy photo of the day,” he noted, which could lead to fame and fortune or at least bragging rights.

The search engine for the index is useful. Type in “Saturn rings” and it will find 200 items.

“There’s a wealth of information in there if you’re looking for something,” McLaren said.

So the next time you’re checking out the Astronomy Picture of the Day, remember that there’s a whole lot of knowledge lurking beneath those gorgeous photos.

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Solstice sunset watch and LIGO info on our calendar this week

The calendar year is winding down, and astronomy clubs are hustling to get a last few events in before we plunge into 2017.

Rose City AstronomersThe Rose City Astronomers eschew their usual formal meeting for their annual holiday potluck at 6:30 p.m. Monday, December 19 at the OMSI auditorium in Portland. Leftovers from the event have traditionally been donated to a homeless shelter, and this year the astronomers are also collecting warm clothing for donations, figuring that astronomy folk may have a supply of such to bring comfort to those late-night sessions at the eyepiece.

The Eastside Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday, December 20 at the Lake Hills Library in Bellevue. NASA Solar System Ambassador John McLaren will give a talk about the history of scientific exploration of the Sun, and look ahead to future efforts to learn even more about our nearest star.

Seattle Astronomical SocietyThe Seattle Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, December 21 in room A102 of the Physics/Astronomy building on the University of Washington campus in Seattle. Joey Key, a professor at the University of Washington-Bothell, will talk about the next LIGO run searching for gravitational waves, which will also involve astronomical collaboration is search of an elusive “multimessenger source,” a signal that could be detected both in gravitational waves and electromagnetic radiation. Interesting stuff!

Vikings

VMMEPPThe Viking Mars Missions Education and Preservation Project plans an informal information session for 4 p.m. Tuesday, December 20 at the Hillsdale Library in Portland. This family-friendly event will feature artifacts from the Viking mission, activities for kids, and lots of information about Viking history. Check out our recent article and podcast about the project. The year end is a good time to lend a little financial support to this great history project, too!

Solstice sunset watch

Join Alice Enevoldsen of Alice’s Astro Info and watch the first sunset of winter at 3:45 p.m. Wednesday, December 20 at Solstice Park in West Seattle. The solstice is at 2:44 a.m. PST on Wednesday. Sunset that evening is officially listed as 4:20 p.m., but Enevoldsen says they’ve noted that it’s typically about ten minutes early because of the horizon at that spot. She gives a fun and informative presentation about the mechanics of the seasons, and is persistent about it—this will be her thirty-first seasonal sunset watch. That’s a lot of solstices and equinoxes! Come by even if it’s cloudy, because the Sun sometimes sneaks through anyway, but driving rain makes it a no-go.

Futures file

You can scout out future astronomy events on our calendar. The page also features a full schedule of planetarium and stage science shows at Pacific Science Center.

Up in the sky

The Ursid meteor shower peaks this week. This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope magazine and The Sky This Week from Astronomy offer more observing highlights for the week.

Club activity and more Viking news on this week’s astro calendar

The Vikings are sailing on Oregon, and a number of astronomy clubs in the region have meetings and events this week.

Viking at Science Pub Eugene

VMMEPPMeet some of the folks involved with the Viking Mars missions in the mid-1970s at Science Pub Eugene at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, November 10 at Whirled Pies at Cozmic in Eugene, Oregon. As an 11-year-old girl Rachel Tillman saved the last remaining un-flown Viking spacecraft from the scrap heap. She later became founder and is executive director of the nonprofit organization The Viking Mars Missions Education & Preservation Project. Tillman will speak at Science Pub Eugene, along with Al Treder, who worked on Viking guidance and control; Peggy Newcomb, wife of NASA Viking engineer and author John Newcomb, who passed away in March; Virgil Young, Camera Imaging Team member at Martin Marietta Laboratories; and Dr. Clare Reimers, professor in the College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University.

Suggested donation for admission is $5. Science Pub Eugene is a program of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. If you can’t make this Viking Mars Mission event, it will be repeated at Science Pub Corvallis on the 14th.

Astronomy clubs

Olympic Astronomical SocietyThe Olympic Astronomical Society plans its monthly meeting for tonight (Monday, November 7) at 7:30 in room Art 103 on the campus of Olympic College in Bremerton. A look at the constellations Libra and Piscis Austrinus and a talk about the warping of time and space are included on the agenda.

beaslogo_300The Boeing Employees’ Astronomical Society will meet at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, November 10 at the Boeing “Oxbow” Fitness Center. NASA Solar System Ambassador John McLaren will give a presentation about the latest information gained from exploring the Sun. Non-Boeing visitors are welcome but need an escort to the meeting. Contact David Ingram for more information.

BPAA logoThe Battle Point Astronomical Association on Bainbridge Island has several events planned for Saturday. Parents and budding scientists attending the BP Astro Kids program at 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. November 12 will learn what caused all of those craters on the Moon, and then will build their own moons to take home. At 7:30 p.m. the club’s planetarium show will look at the possible connections between dark matter, black holes, and gravitational waves. If there weather permits there will be astronomical observing as well. It all happens at the club’s Edwin Ritchie Observatory and John Rudolph Planetarium in Battle Point Park on Bainbridge.

Seattle Astronomical SocietyThe Seattle Astronomical Society will offer a workshop about understanding telescopes at 2 p.m. Sunday, November 13 at the Theodor Jacobsen Observatory on the University of Washington campus in Seattle. Experienced stargazers will discuss the basic concepts needed for choosing and using telescopes, eyepieces, and star charts. The event is open to members and non-members alike.

Futures file

You can scout out future astronomy events on our calendar. New additions to the calendar this week include the next Astronomy on Tap Seattle event, set for November 16 at Peddler Brewing Company in Ballard. By the way, there’s a nice article about the Astronomy on Tap movement in the December issue of Astronomy magazine.

Up in the sky

Neptune will appear very close to the Moon on Wednesday. The Sky This Week from Astronomy and This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope have more observing highlights for the week.