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It's always nice to get good news from one's alma mater (instead of the usual begging letters from the development foundation). Where I went to school (University of Colorado), astronomy, planetary science, and space sciences research have always been Big Things. I did my graduate studies while serving on a team that worked with an HST instrument (the Goddard High Resolution Spectrograph), and also did some work on comet images under a Halley Watch grant. One of the folks who I overlapped with at CU is Alan Stern, now Associate Administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, and an old friend. At CU he worked with the Center for Space and Geoscience Policy, before leaving to work at Southwest Research Institute. A number of other missions had CU relationships, including some involving other members of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (where I worked), Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics (I worked there as an undergraduate), and a variety of other research institutes at CU.
Artist concepts of a Naval Observatory Proposal involving CU-Boulder to place a carpet-like radio telescope on the moon to probe the earliest structures in the universe. Image courtesy CU-Boulder, NRL
Suffice to say, I was pleased to see a press release today outlining a pair of projects that NASA and the Naval Research Laboratory has selected for further funding and development that both involve people and institutions at CU. The first is for a space observatory to find Earth-like planets in distant solar systems. The other is for a unique type of low-frequency radio telescope on the far side of the Moon. Astronomers would use it to look for some of the earliest structures in the universe. Both are very worthy projects and I'm pleased to see my home university continue its winning streak in astronomy and space science. (Read more details here.)
Both projects should give undergraduate and graduate students first-hand experience in designing instruments AND doing science, something that attracted me back to graduate school in the first place (lo these many years ago). While CU isn't the only university that gets these grants and makes opportunities available, it has been a leader for many years in this area. I can't think of Duane Physics tower or the LASP building or the JILA towers without remembering all the really smart, really great scientists who came out of those labs and who are making solid scientific contributions today. There are whole new generations of instruments and projects waiting for new generations of student scientists. And that's good news for science and for old alums like me.
Noreen Grice is one of the most amazing individuals I know. She works at the Boston Museum of Science and has single-handedly brought astronomy to people who can't see the stars. Noreen took the unheard-of idea of teaching visual astronomy to the blind by using Braille books. Her first one was Touch the Stars. That one has been followed by Touch the Universe and Touch the Sun.
Now, her latest book, Touch the Invisible Universe is coming out, according to a press release that is showing up at various NASA-funded sites. It is being distributed by NASA to schools for the blind, and various libraries where it will be a resource for visually impaired people.
When it comes to ultraviolet, x-ray, gamma-ray, radio, and infrared radiation, we're all blind to the universe in those wavelengths. So, I think it's pretty cool that Noreen has taken a subject within astronomy that gives ALL of us an insight to things we can't otherwise see (wavelengths beyond visible (optical) light), and explains it all in a book that uses Braille, large print, and tactile "graphics" of astronomical objects, for those who cannot see at all. Astronomy is for everybody, and Noreen's new book brings that lesson home in an unforgettable way.
Ever hear of 2007 WD5? It's all over the news right now, so I'm probably not telling you anything new about it, but just in case you've been out holiday shopping or traveling or hiding under a rock, here's the scoop. 2007 WD5 is a 164-foot-wide asteroid that is moving in an orbit that will cross Mars's orbital path in late January. It comes close enough to Mars that it will pass within 30,000 miles (48,000 kilometers) of the planet. It's possible, although not likely, that this thing could actually smack into Mars's surface. The chances are about 1 in 75. If it did, this rock (traveling at 30,000 miles per hour) would dig out a crater about the same size as the one that the Opportunity rover is exploring right now.
Victoria Crater on Mars
Over the next few weeks astronomers will get a better idea of the asteroid's orbit and whether it will actually hit Mars or sail on by. You can follow the action by visiting NASA's Near Earth Object Program web page for updates.
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