Thursday, October 15, 2009

Target Moon, Meteor Showers and Stardust

'We're bombing the moon!'
'Come attend the party', to paraphrase the Nasa blurb inviting the general public to the LCROSS Impact Night festivities. (Free admission, limited tent space, Please bring your own Blankets, Chairs, and Snacks.)
And so the crowds gathered to watch what was projected to be a spectacular 6 kilometer high array of plumes at the point of impact, as the NASA LCROSS mission crashed into the lunar crater, in a bid to search for water.
Wait, I thought India's Chandrayaan mission had already produced data indicating that there was ample water (not the H2O variety, but a similar chemical composition termed Hydroxyls, from which water as we know it could be generated for consumption by Lunonauts of the future.) But,but, what about all the money we have spent on the LCROSS? How can NASA let that money go waste. Bombs away!
Any way, we now have proof that there was indeed an impact, no magical vaporization of the incoming object by a hidden race of lunartics, who have lived hitherto undiscovered, peacefully, all these millenia:)
(The picture of the thermal image on impact is from the NASA website.- Seems like a wash in terms of actual difference in the 'before' and 'after' pictures. One almost needs to crunch the numbers on the pixel distribution before determining there was a significant increase in heating of the lunar surface after impact, rather than a clear visual indication of difference.)

It reminds me of a much-hyped 'spectacular shower of Leonids' that was mentioned in a large newspaper article, way back when I had first come to the US. My husband and I set out, along with another astronomically-inclined friend, to a large park to the north of Pittsburgh, hoping for the requisite dark skies to see the spectacle. We waited, scanning the patch of black sky just above, eager for a sight of multiple flashes of twinkling light.
"There's a shooting star!" I pointed out a single moving flash. About 5 minutes later, "There's another." About 10 minutes later "I saw two flashes!" And so it went on, for another half hour, till we realized that the 'spectacle' wasn't really forthcoming, just isolated flashes every 5-10 minutes or so.Plus, I was freezing. So we packed up and trudged back to the parking lot, determined to let no more hyping articles entice us into doing this again.
Every year, like clockwork, the obligatory article shows up in the newspaper (maybe they even recycle the article, with changed dates and such), trumpeting breathlessly that a 'grand spectacle awaits all those who dare to venture out after dark'. We smile at these and stay firmly indoors.

Work on the Stardust mission goes on,long after the main mission of collecting dust from comet Wild 2 is done . The NASA press release highlights that glycine, one of the building blocks of life, was discovered in the comet. But on a side, more 'dusting' of the results are still being done by a mini-army of avid 'stardust' hunters assembled over the internet. I'm one of them, and love to skim over the Virtual Microscope pictures, trying to identify candidate tracks of possible interstellar dust particles.
The ultimate reward would be to be the first to identify one such particle, in which you get to name the particle (Hmm....should I name it after my kids, a compounded Sanskrit version of Stardust, or maybe after a deity ...Talk about counting chickens before they are hatched!)
For now, I'm happy enough to make it to the top 500 of the 27,000-odd members of the 'dusting crew'. The interest has dropped off since the first phase got over last year, with candidates identified, extracted and examined. Unfortunately, none of them were of extraterrestrial origin, so the search still continues.
I use it as a sort of soothing activity, when I feel the need for a quiet break between the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Maybe, I'll even get into the top 100 list, which at least qualify for a mention on a webpage ;)

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