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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.
Up until a couple of days ago we were shivering under some pretty cold temps up here in New England. The other night we took the trash out and it was about 10 below zero (F)—cold enough to literally take your breath away. The sky was quite clear that night, and the stars were stunningly beautiful. Mars was like a red beacon...
The next day I walked out to get the mail and noticed the ice in the driveway. It reminded me of pictures I'd seen of ice fields on the worlds of the outer solar system. Out there ice doesn't so much melt off the surfaces of those worlds, but it sublimates—it turns from ice crystals into a gas without going through that pesky liquid phase we see here on Earth.
Oh, there is liquid water out there at the outer worlds. At least, that's the working hypothesis deduced from various observations. And, how else do you explain what looks like deposits of fresh ice that have somehow oozed up through cracks on the surfaces of places like Enceladus, Europa and Pluto's moon Charon? It's only a matter of time before the existence of all those cold oceans are confirmed. And, when I read about them, I can certainly sympathize with the idea of cold—especially after the bitterly cold weather we had last week. However, I am reminded that 10 below zero here on Earth would be a pretty warm day on Mars or Enceladus or Tethys or Pluto or Charon— so we have it pretty good here at home.
Speaking of cold and ice and outer solar system, here's the latest installment of my ongoing vodcast series. It features an observation made at Gemini Observatory that I wrote about a few months ago, and an image I worked on with the PR folks at Gemini. Come on—let's go visit some ice worlds!
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