Deep Impact

Except for when I saw the movie “Deep Impact,” I have never been scared by the thought of an asteroid strike, so why do I write so much about them? The short answer is that I have been interested in asteroids, comets, and meteors since I was young, but a better answer is that in 2019 I had a briefing from some professional astronomers that renewed my interest in asteroids, and what might be headed our way. What they told me seemed to have an air of urgency to it, and now given the apparent up-tick in asteroid activity by the media, and a seemingly greater public interest in asteroids, it appears as if I might have been given some relevant information. The part that really interests me is the recent increase interest in asteroids by the world scientific community. The reaction coming from many quarters seems to indicate that something is a foot.

The following is from 2016

What would we do if we discovered a large asteroid on course to impact Earth? While highly unlikely, that was the high-consequence scenario discussed by attendees at an Oct. 25 NASA-FEMA tabletop exercise in El Segundo, California.

While highly unlikely” is an interesting choice of words, but that sentiment is not the prevailing wisdom these days. They are from a conference back in 2016, and in my opinion, seem to be designed more to make all of us feel warm and fuzzy, but is that realistic?

The scientific community is aware that asteroids and other big space “rocks” pose a potential problem for the planet. In 2020, there is a great concern about what might be headed our way.

The average person must deal with the coronavirus, so awareness of the news regarding an asteroid on a potential collision course with the planet is probably not be uppermost on their mind. News of the asteroid that just missed us a couple of days ago is disconcerting because the encounter took us by surprise. Nevertheless, it is worthy of our attention. Moreover, the increase in the frequency of close encounter reports and the renewed interest in what’s going on near the planet is noteworthy.

If one looks for information about potential asteroid encounters one can find a number of potential candidates on the Internet. Much has been written about the asteroid called Apophis. CLICK HERE to read about the Friday the 13th near approach of that bad boy. Did I mention it is April 2029, almost a decade away from now? I will check my calendar to see if I will be available to watch it go by. In the meantime, we need to know what is happening right now regarding near earth asteroids?

I have a personal rule of life that is if an event is more than five years away then I do not need to know about it, so when we get to 2024 I will start thinking about Apophis. Even then it will be just for fun.

In my school daze I had a science teacher that made a point of telling the class that in one billion years or so, the sun will run out of solar fuel and the earth will be doomed. Wow, alert the media, and by the way, what’s for lunch? Why does anyone care about events 1000 years from now let alone a billion years? Has there been a dramatic change in life expectancy and I missed the memo? Meanwhile, back in 2020…

The incidents of near earth asteroid passing appear to getting more frequent. That may be in part due to the Internet and other modern communications methods. Accurate records of asteroid activity are kept by the people and agencies responsible for tracking asteroids. They would reveal if there is a recent increase in asteroid activity, or a recent increase of asteroid close encounters. Astronomers and other people who watch the skies for a living are in a position to know the level of risk. I wonder if they are they holding back information from the public?

The European Space Agency (ESA) reports: …such intense levels of international scientific collaboration are driven in part by the fact that an asteroid impact could cause devastating effects on Earth. This is a testament to the fact that we are at a point in human history where we are considering that we should do something about risky asteroids.

According to recent ESA estimates, there are 878 asteroids in the ‘risk list. This ESA catalog brings together all asteroids we know of that have a ‘non-zero’ chance of impacting Earth in the next 100 years. Non-zero means that an impact, however unlikely, cannot be ruled out.

What are the odds that there is something out there that has yet to be seen? Something that for a number of reasons has not yet shown it’s crater pocked face. Something not yet seen by the astronomical community at large. Not possible you say, well we just missed one a few days ago, and it made the closest approach to earth of any asteroid known to our scientific community. Even the asteroid hunters admit that blew it, but in fairness, they are doing a remarkable job with the resources they have available to them.

Several near earth asteroid passes are slated for the rest of 2020. We are told that only a very few could possibly collide with earth, and more are being reported as “big.” By virtue of the timing, the most famous one is the election day asteroid. The scientific community is in agreement that it is very small and poses no significant problem, unless of course it hits your polling place on November 2nd.

I will continue to post significant asteroid updates in my blogs, and if the situation warrants it, present timely updates on any asteroid activity that might affect us. In a future post I will also share the bombshell information that I received during my face to face meeting last year with some professional astronomers. In the mean time, look at the night sky as often as you can and enjoy the majesty of the universe.

Asteroid Update August 24

This month, the large Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico was damaged when its parabolic disk was shredded. Allegedly, a cable weighing several tons broke loose from a support tower and crashed down on the telescope’s reflector dish, creating a 100-foot swath of damage to panels in its receiver and to an area used by the staff as access. It is expected to be out of service for at least 5 months. Some however are speculating that it was something from space that did the damage, but as of right now there is no proof of that. The mainstream story is as follows:

August 19th, a previously-discovered asteroid identified as ZTF0DxQ passed our planet at a distance of a quarter of Earth’s diameter. That gives it the distinction of being the closest-known flyby that didn’t actually hit the planet. The following is a graphic from the Earthsky.org website.

Close Encounter of the scary kind

Newly discovered asteroid ZTF0DxQ – now officially labeled 2020 QG – swept about 1,830 miles (2,900 km) from Earth’s surface on Sunday, August 16, 2020, then zoomed on. It was moving at a speed of about 7.7 miles per second (12.4 km per second) or about 27,600 mph. Because it approached Earth from a sun-ward direction, it flew past us unseen at 04:08 UTC. Astronomers didn’t detect it until six hours later. This object now holds the record among known asteroids for having swept closest to us without striking us.

The website asks: “Should we be glad it didn’t hit us, or mad that it wasn’t detected earlier? Neither one. And here’s why: relatively speaking, this object is very, very small.”

Earthsky.org is a first class website that reports on all things space. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in knowing what is going on OUT THERE. However, in this case I take issue with their conclusions about our asteroid “hunters” missing one.

Astronomers are clearly aware that many dangerous asteroids are roaming around in our solar system, and that the odds are that one day there will AGAIN be a life altering collision with our planet. That day could be hundreds, or even thousands of years from now, or maybe much much sooner. With that in mind we must always be vigilant for the possibility that something is inbound. Speaking of which, yet another asteroid, 2018VP1, is predicted to pass near Earth the day before the US presidential election on November 2nd. and you thought we already had enough excitement with the election. Asteroid 2018VP1 has a projected 0.41% chance of hitting the planet, according to NASA. The following is a story by Jacinta Bowler on the website https://www.sciencealert.com.

Here’s The Real Truth About That ‘Election Day’ Asteroid on Its Way to Earth.

If you’ve looked at the news today, you’d be forgiven for thinking a huge asteroid is on track to collide with Earth the day before the 2020 US Presidential election.

At least that’s the takeaway from quite a few news outlets. And, understandably, some people are freaking out. In a year with a literal pandemic, an asteroid collision really just puts a cherry on the top of a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad cake.

But we have good news for you! Despite the headlines, there’s no need to worry about this particular asteroid – known as 2018VP1.

2018VP1 is not a surprise to scientists. As its name suggests, it was discovered back in 2018 while it was around 450,000 kilometers (280,000 miles) away from Earth. It’s got a two-year orbital period, and it’s currently on its way back around again towards us.

Fortunately, this is not one of the many asteroids that we don’t know about until they’ve already exploded, or flown by.

This time though, the Apollo-class asteroid is estimated to come within 4,994.76 kilometers of Earth. That’s really close in space terms. And because it’s so close, there’s a slight chance (1 in 240 or 0.41 percent) that it’ll hit Earth on 2 November 2020 – the day before the US Presidential election.

It is safe to say that we have dodged a bullet, and will likely keep doing so for the near term. However, there are two things to keep in mind.

Number 1 is that some day the really big one will likely impact with the planet. We are constantly being told that will be in the far future, so no need to worry. Okay thanks.

Number 2 is that the men and women who scan the skies for a living already know the ugly truth about our future. What if they knew something, but were not permitted to speak about it? Of course they have families, and close friends, so the likelihood of the deep dark secret being kept from us is very slim. Nevertheless, it is possible that for the near term the secret will remain intact. What is evident is that the government and our military seem to know something that they are not sharing with us. I will address that issue in a future post, but for now we can stay safely locked away in our houses and apartments, hiding from the “killer virus”—or not.

Subscribe to my website to keep up with the unfolding asteroid situation. I have an eye to the sky.

The Telescopes of Mt. Graham – Part 1

I have been fascinated with astronomy since I was a kid growing up in Detroit. There are now many powerful telescopes on the planet, and an increasing number of telescopes in orbit. I still try to keep up with the ever-increasing discoveries being made in the field, but for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, I became specifically fascinated by the telescope known as the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) located on Mt. Graham in Arizona.

The Large Binocular Telescope (LBT)

I am not exactly sure when I first became aware of the LBT, but I remember that it was from the internet. Once I learned what it was, and what it did, I knew that I must visit this magnificent window to the stars in person, so I decided to travel to Arizona and get up close and personal with it. Was it the telescope, or was it the mission that most interested me? It turns out that it was both, but getting there was not as easy for me as it should have been.

Normally, it should have been a simple journey up Mt. Graham in Arizona, but for me is was not. In 2017 I prepared to go, but thanks to “mother nature,” my first two attempts to visit the LBT were unsuccessful. I was delayed by two years. The first attempt was thwarted by a forest fire on the mountain. It was only after I took the tour that I learned just how grave a threat the fire posed to the telescopes and the mountain top community that supports the three observatories there.

My second attempt was thwarted not by fire, but by water. the heavy Arizona. monsoon rains washed out parts of the road to the top of Mt. Graham. Because the trees and other vegetation were destroyed in the fire they were of little value in mitigating the effects of the cascading rain water. The resulting damage to the road closed the mountain to the public, and I was forced to wait yet another year for my visit. Finally, in September of 2019 I made it to the top of Mt. Graham. My quest to visit the three telescopes and to stand in the same room as the LBT—the giant window into time and space was complete. For me it was the experience that I imagined it would be. I also saw first hand the clear danger the fire presented to the telescopes, and how close they came to sustaining serious damage.

Over time I visited other telescopes like the big telescope on Mt. Palomar, which for years was the biggest telescope on the planet. I also visited the Keck observatory telescopes on Mauna Kea Hawaii. At the time of my visit they where the world’s largest optical and infrared telescopes.

The Hawaiian experience was unique because of the rapid dramatic temperature change from sea level to 13,000. in just over an hour I went from a humid 90 degrees with the air conditioner on high in my rent-a-car, to soon having snow swirling around the car, and the heater on high. That experience alone was special for me, but my visit to the LBT was very special in a different way.

Fire and water did present a challenge getting up the mountain, but our guide, John Ratje, mentioned that the real challenge occurs in the winter when five or more feet of snow and ice cover the road. I live in the tropics, so it is extremely unlikely that I will ever experience that situation. However it is good to know.

When there is no snow, no fire, and no floods, getting to the top Mt. Graham is actually easy. The Eastern Arizona College Discovery Park Campus is the agency that provides the public tours, and a nice picnic lunch. They operate a clean van that takes the tour participants right up to the telescopes. However, before one can climb aboard, a short video briefing is given to describe what we will experience on the tour.

In addition to the video, everyone is required to read, and sign two documents. The first one is a standard release form to hold harmless The Eastern Arizona College Discovery Park Campus in case of an accident, or alien abduction while roaming around the mountain top compound. Each participant must affirm that they are not suffering from any of the health problems listed in the document.

The observatories are located 10,000 feet above sea level, so there is a legitimate concern that some folks might be negativity affected by the altitude. Apparently it happens. If one were coming from a sea level community, then I can understand the reason for concern. I am on the far side of 70-years-old, but for the past 25 years, I have lived at or near 5,000-feet, so I knew that I was somewhat acclimated to the 10,000-foot altitude, and I had no problems during my visit. I was also sure none of the other items on the list applied to me as well, especially the one about being pregnant.

The second document was to make us aware of the endangered Red Squirrel population that inhabits the area. The squirrels are an endangered species that are protected by a federal law of the same name. Their habitat is clearly marked by yellow tape similar to that used by the police to mark the boundaries of a crime scene. Each tour participant had to warrant that they would not disturb, harass, or otherwise interact with the little critters, because to do so is a federal offense.

It seemed strange to focus on red squirrels, but the legal ramifications of disrespecting their habitat is quite serious. We needed to know that there were legal consequences to anyone transgressing their area. To cross the yellow tape that marks the boundary to their habitat would invite problems, and their piece of paradise was the first thing we were shown upon our arrival at the telescope community.

Before I leave this topic, I feel compelled to say that, at no point did I ever see a red squirrel. I came to see telescopes, not interact with the cute Red Squirrel population, but I make wild life videos in Central America and I appreciate all wild animals. As an aside, you might enjoy the following information about the Red Squirrel. CLICK HERE

The trip to the telescopes takes about an hour and a half. It starts on a smooth paved road from the Discovery Park Campus in Safford, Arizona and eventually turns into a road up the mountain. The many switch-backs and curves present marvelous views, and dramatic photo opportunities of the valley below, but the last eight miles of the trip is an adventure, It is on a dirt and gravel road that seems best suited as a vehicle shock absorber test track. Along the way the acres of burned trees from the forest fire give the area a foreboding look, not unlike the dark forest in the Wizard of Oz.

On the way up we stop at a nice campground to eat the lunch which is included as part of the tour. The food was welcomed, but the break from the bumpy road was also appreciated. During my time on the mountain I was hoping to see a bear, but that never happened. I did however get some video of a beautiful deer.

After lunch, the trip to the top was quick. The final mile or so is on a single lane road that requires coordination with the top of Mt. Graham to insure that there is no downhill traffic. It would not work well for two vehicles to confront one another on the narrow road. Our driver used his two-way radio to call someone known as “Moon Base.” Where is it we’re going? After three attempted contacts there was no response to our driver. We had to move on, so he announced our intentions over the radio and we headed up the hill.

On the last leg of the trip we passed more burned trees, then suddenly we came around a curve, and there it was. I was looking at the building that houses the LBT. After two failed attempts, I had finally made it!

Click Here to read about my experience with the three telescopes on Mt. Graham.

The Telescopes of Mt. Graham – Part 2

CLICK HERE to go to The Telescopes of Mt. Graham – Part 1

After exiting the van, our guide, John showed us the yellow tape that marked the boundary of “Squirrel Country,” then he pointed out just how close the fire came to destroying the telescope complex. Next he took us inside the Vatican advanced technology telescope (VATT) complex owned and operated by the Catholic church.

The complex is a place that allows the Jesuit astronomers to observe the heavens in comfort. Unlike yesteryear, astronomers no longer actually stand below a telescope and look through an eyepiece. Now when it is freezing outside, they sit in toasty warm comfort and view the heavens via their computer screens. I saw several computer screens inside the VATT complex that could display images coming directly from the telescope. Gone are the days where an astronomer must brave the cold to view the heavens. Today they sit inside and sip hot coffee or tea, and maybe even listen to contemplative ethereal music as they unravel the mysteries of the cosmos in comfort.

Thanks to John we were provided unfettered access to every part of the VATT complex. He is a highly trained engineer and he presented complete information about the telescopes. His tour was actually more like a master class on how telescopes, and everything else on the mountain works. In addition to presenting the telescope, he showed us every aspect of the operation, including the living quarters, and support facilities for the astronomers. The bedrooms were indeed as small as John told us they were during our lunch break on the way up the mountain. I am a former sailor, and used to small sleeping quarters, so I was ready to move right in. Of course, I am neither an astronomer, nor a Jesuit, so I will not likely ever have that experience.

The walls of the living quarters are adorned with beautiful photos of objects in space that were no doubt captured from the computer screens. Some of the most dramatic photographic images you will ever see are taken by astronomers. They are among the best photographers on the planet.

After touring, and examining the living quarters, we took the elevator up to view the telescope. By today’s standards it is not large, but nonetheless impressive. Standing below it, awakened my kinship with the astronomers. Clearly, I do not have their scholarship, but I do have their interest.

Throughout the entire day John presented a splendid presentation about the operation of the telescopes, and the various pieces of support hardware. He also told us some aspects about the mission, but as good as it was, it just scratched the surface of something as big as—well, as big as the universe.

The tour allowed me to reconnected with my own knowledge of astronomy, and having that background made John’s presentation even more meaningful. I was happy that I had a decent background in things astronomical, but after about an hour into the tour my brain started to overload. However, geek in me wanted more, and I got it.

After a very good explanation of the telescope that towered above us, the tour of the VATT facilities was complete. Now it was time to move on and experience what I had come to see. The Large Binocular Telescope.

THE LARGE BINOCULAR TELESCOPE: (LBT)

When we look through a telescope, we are actually looking back in time. I have, on occasion, referred to space as the great cosmic lie above us, and it is. To varying degrees what we see does not actually exist in the way we see it. For example, a star 100 light years away could have vanished 50 of our years ago, and we would not know it because the light we see from that star is still traveling to the earth from 100 years ago. We would not see it actually disappear for fifty more years. Strictly speaking what we experience as “real time,” could be viewed as a lie.

When John took us into the giant room that houses the LBT, we were awed by the majesty of the machine. Thanks to him, the experience was even greater than I had expected. John is now retired, but at one time he was the director of the Mt. Graham International Observatory. His knowledge of the LBT, as well as the two other telescopes on Mt. Graham, is impressive. I came for a simple tour of the giant telescopes, but the tour turned in to a master class on the telescopes and how they are used.

The tour lasted several hours, and when it was over my mind was overflowing with facts about these giant windows to the heavens. I was mentally and emotionally drained from the experience. Thankfully I took several photos, and made a video of the experience. Sadly the low light in some of the locations, rendered much of the video not suitable for public presentation, but it serves as an excellent reference for my time at the LBT and the entire Mt. Graham experience.

MEETING LUCIFER

Looking at space in the infrared spectrum reveals things that we normally cannot see because of the limitations of our eyes. By employing an infrared device, we can see sights not possible by observations in the normal light spectrum. infrared also produces photographic images not available with typical optical telescope photography. The device that accomplishes that on the LBT is was originally named LUCIFER.

LUCIFER or L.U.C.I.F.E.R is an acronym for Large Binocular Telescope Near-infrared Spectroscopic Utility with Camera and Integral Field Unit for Extra galactic Research. Please remember this because it will be on the test. However, the original name LUCIFER was considered to have a negative connotation, so the device is now referred to as LUCI. For the technically minded among us, a more in depth explanation is presented elsewhere. For the rest of us, here’s the deal.

Astronomers have known for years that looking into space with an optical telescope does not bring out the entire picture. Therefore, to reveal, or enhance what they can seen with traditional telescopes, they started scanning the skies in the infrared spectrum. In some respects, it is now the spectrum of choice. Simply stated, an infrared telescope is a telescope that uses infrared light to detect celestial bodies. It is an incredible tool for astronomy.

CLASS IS NOW IN SESSION

Infrared light is one of several types of radiation present in the electromagnetic spectrum. All celestial objects with a temperature above absolute zero emit some form of electromagnetic radiation. In order to study the universe, scientists use several different types of telescopes to detect the different types of emitted radiation in the electromagnetic spectrum. Some of these are gamma ray, x-ray, ultra-violet, and infrared telescopes. While that sounds, and actually is somewhat esoteric, the discovery of infrared radiation goes way back to 1800 when William Herschel discovered infrared radiation.

Like all scientific discoveries, advancements and further discoveries were made along the way. Today LUCI is an indispensable tool for the astronomers that use the LBT.

Have you ever had an instance in your life when you saw something, then immediately exclaimed: Did I just see that? Of course you have. Here is something interesting that you can do.

On a pleasant summer night go out to your backyard, or someplace with some soft (dry) grass. Take a pair of binoculars with you, as well as a pair of infrared binoculars. Lie down on your back and scan the sky with the regular binoculars. Now repeat the process with the infrared binoculars. What you will see will amaze you. You will wonder what’s actually going on up there. Spoiler alert… you won’t believe your eyes. Human eyes are really good for some things, but they are, no doubt by design, limited.

Usually Arizona is very hot and very dry, but when the rains finally come they can be very heavy. Obviously, rain affects astronomical observations, and cloud cover of any kind prevents optical astronomy. September in Arizona is known for heavy cloud cover and rain. The time of heavy rain is known as the monsoon season. Shortly after I arrived at my hotel in Safford, Arizona, the closest city to Mt. Graham, it rained very hard. I loved it, because after spending the summer in the high desert of Idaho, it was the first rain that I experienced in three months. In case you don’t know, I live in the tropics, so I do know rain.

Everyone associated with the telescopes on Mt. Graham understands the monsoon season. Consequently, the astronomers take this time to return to their respective communities around the world. On the day of my visit no astronomers were on Mt. Graham. I was disappointed about that, because I wanted to speak with an astronomer. The monsoon time is used to make adjustments to the telescopes and the support equipment, so I did get to speak with a couple of the technicians on Mt. Graham. Two days later when I visited the astronomical complex on Kitt Peak, which is also in southern Arizona, I did have the chance to speak with some real life astronomers. That was eye opening!

The complex on Mt. Graham is a lot like a small town. It has the same needs as every small town, but it is very remote, and it exists with a unique set of restrictions. Some of them are fascinating, like the complex being surrounded by an endangered Red Squirrel habitation.
That would be strange enough, but living in a remote location demands a way of life that differs from traditional daily lives.

Like any other community, Mt. Graham has it’s own police force. At one time it was a substantial force that was necessary because of organized opposition to the telescopes by the “green community,”and some Indian tribes. Strictly speaking, they were against any intrusion of the area, not the telescopes. Today, a department of only one or two officers is required to serve the needs of the mountain top.

RADIO TELESCOPE

One can never look through the third telescope on Mt. Graham. Why, I hear you ask? Well it is because it is not an optical telescope. It is a radio Telescope.

A radio telescope is a specialized antenna and radio receiver used to receive radio waves from radio sources in space. Just as optical telescopes are the main observing instrument used in traditional optical astronomy which studies the light wave portion of the spectrum coming from astronomical objects. Radio telescopes are the main observing instrument used in radio astronomy, which is the study of the radio frequency portion of the electromagnetic spectrum emitted by astronomical objects.

Radio telescopes are typically large parabolic dish antennas similar to those employed in tracking and communicating with satellites and space probes. They may be used singly or linked together electronically in an array. Unlike optical telescopes, radio telescopes can be used in the daytime as well as at night. Since astronomical radio sources such as planets, stars, nebulae and galaxies are very far away, the radio waves coming from them are extremely weak, so radio telescopes require very large antennas to collect enough radio energy and extremely sensitive receiving equipment to study them. Radio observatories are preferentially located far from major centers of population to avoid electromagnetic interference (EMI) from radio, television, radar, motor vehicles, and other man-made electronic devices. Since my visit to Mt. Graham, a worldwide network of radio telescopes working in concert actually produced the first photo of a black hole. That is a huge milestone in astronomy!

Radio waves from space were first detected by engineer Karl Guthe Jansky in 1932 at Bell Telephone Laboratories in Holmdel, New Jersey using an antenna built to study noise in radio receivers. The first radio telescope built to study the stars was a 9-meter parabolic dish constructed by a radio amateur Grote Reber in his back yard in Wheaton, Illinois in 1937. The sky survey he did with it is often considered the beginning of the field of radio astronomy.

The work that the Catholic Astronomers are doing on Mt Graham is yielding very good data about our universe. It could be said that they are actually looking for life in the cosmos. One (unnamed) source told me they were looking for God. I find that very interesting, but have no idea if it is true or that is part of their mission. However, it would not surprise me if it is.

As soon as possible I want to return to Mt. Graham to make a proper documentary on the telescopes and the astronomers. Given the dangers to the planet that are lurking “out there,” I need to know more about what is likely already known by a relatively few people. For now, the Covid-19 Virus has curtailed public visits to the Mt. Graham Complex, but maybe in 2021 the visits will resume. I am ready to return so I am holding out hope for that.

Jim