For my fellow science writers and/or science junkies, 2006 was a blessing from wherever it is that blessings originate. It seemed as if every time we logged on to the ‘Net or checked our RSS feeds there would be at least one item of significance and 2 or 3 notes in support of (or minimizing) some previous theory or speculation. And, based on the number (and quality) of announcements that have crossed my monitor, 2007 is off to a very interesting start.
As I write this article (January 3), there is quite a commotion on the sun’s surface as sunspots 930, 933, and 934 are just now becoming visible as the sun’s rotation brings them around from its far (facing away from Earth) side. Sunspot 930 is particularly interesting because it’s making a second appearance after being rotated out of view just over 2 weeks ago. On its initial appearance, 930 was associated with 4 violent explosions on the sun’s surface (solar flares/coronal mass ejections) that were responsible for spectacular auroras that were seen as far south as northern Arizona (US) and Madrid, Spain!
It is a common misconception that only the United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is in the business of satellite-launching and space exploration. While that may have been the case a few decades ago, NASA now works in partnership with several multi-national agencies thanks to cost sharing and joint management agreements. The European Space Agency (ESA) is one such partnership agency as well as being one of the most active.
ESA is an active participant in the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) Program, the Cassini – Huygens mission to Saturn as well as the Mars Express and Venus Express interplanetary missions. But it may be a mission that began on December 27, 2006 that will provide the next series of astounding headlines.
Launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, by a Soyuz-Fregat launch vehicle, the COROT (Convection Rotation and planetary Transits) mission will search for evidence of planets orbiting other nearby stars (exoplanets) and will also gather data regarding “starquakes” (pressure waves that originate deep within a star that cause detectible “ripples” on its surface) in order to provide more precise measurements of stellar weights and surface temperatures. These measurements, and others, will eventually be used to “fine tune” current models of star formation and lifetimes.
In all honesty I must confess to being a “Hubble Addict” simply because I feel that the HST has made more contributions to astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology since the days of Galileo, Brahe, Copernicus, and Newton. Although it was thought that the Hubble’s usefulness would end when the onboard supply of fuel for its positioning jets ran out, the recent decision by NASA to dedicate a final Space Shuttle mission to service the HST will extend its lifetime until its successor, the James Webb Telescope, is launched early in the next decade.
And what has the Hubble found that it deserves such special care? We could start with the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field image, the famous picture that revealed the structure of the universe in the first billion years following the “Big Bang?” What about the images of 2 galaxies in collision that confirmed the existence of Dark Matter?
The list could go on for pages and pages but, outside, the sun has set and it’s clear and cold. Should be a good night for amateur astronomers such as you and I to take a look around this corner of universe.
I’ll meet you outside.
For More Information
For the benefit of my fellow astronomy enthusiasts (and those that are drawn to the field by the exquisite beauty of the heavens), I suggest adding the following web sites to your Favorites List:
The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration/National Weather Service Space Environment Center is the web sites for everyone with an interest in how events in space can influence conditions on or near the Earth.
For those who want the “Just the facts Maam” summary along with an update on things such as upcoming meteor showers or other interesting events (not to mention some very spectacular photography), log into Spaceweather.com.
News and updates regarding ESA activities can be found by following the links provided on the ESA home page at http://www.esa.int/esaCP/index.html.