Leading off for Planet Earth, now batting … number one … June 8th … The Transit of Venus.
If you’re living in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, or on a houseboat in the Atlantic Ocean, your only excuse might be if its cloudy on Tuesday. East Coasters of North America can catch the hind end of this event at sunrise. Set your alarm clock for dawn. If you’re an astronomy buff living on the West Coast, why didn’t you plan your summer vacation for this week? The last transit was 122 years ago.
I’m not going to review how you can use a telescope to be able to safely project the solar disc on a white board. Go to an astronomy web site for that. Better yet, attend your local astronomy club’s 5AM party and let the pros do it for you. If you’re going it alone with your own telescope Tuesday, your sensitive optics should be safe, but if it melts your mirror while on African safari, please don’t send me a bill.
I will caution all readers about looking directly at the sun. Just don’t do it. I don’t trust it even when on the horizon; it sets a bad example for less savvy persons who can’t tell when the viewing is done with a several hundreds of extra miles of atmosphere guarding the human retina.
When the 1970 solar eclipse clipped off 90% of the sun over Rochester NY, my mother called us three kids in from playing and closed the curtains. It might have been for the safety of the neighborhood kids as much as my little sister and brother. Likely her eldest son would have conducted a streetcorner astronomy lecture and the temptation to squint up at the sun might have been too much. Not owning a telescope at the time, I had to watch coverage on TV.
Hitting in the number two spot … June 11th … the Cassini fly-by of Phoebe.
And no. It’s not some Lisa Kudrow song in syndication. Go here for the only good peek we’ll get of Saturn’s mysterious backwards moon on this mission. Phoebe could be a captured Centaur, one of a class of outer solar system bodies icy like a comet, yet bulked up to the size of a planetoid. As Cassini passes near Phoebe, scientists can determine composition and fine-tune the known mass of the satellite.
Some astronomers will wax poetic about this being yet another chance to glimpse back to a fragment of the early solar system. If Phoebe is responsible for polluting one hemisphere of Iapetus, I think planetary astronomers might find this little moon somewhat less than pristine. Small moons in the outer solar system have had the habit of turning scientists into psoriasis imitators. Interesting stuff could be found here. As soon as we get back from Tulsa Friday night, I’m heading down to the computer to check the results.
Batting number three … the Mars Rovers.
People forget about these little dudes now that they’ve achieved their mission goals, but I like to follow their progress here just the same. I think NASA would be far wiser to emphasize our science exploration efforts. When successful, these missions really appeal to the human imagination, much more so than construction in low earth orbit. I really think we’re going to have to wait for the arrival of elevator technology before space becomes a viable outlet.
Don’t strike out on these opportunities.