A Day in Astronomy: Visit to Asteroid Gaspra

Image (Credit): Asteroid Gaspra in the asteroid belt, visited by the Galileo spacecraft on its way to Jupiter. (NASA/JPL/USGS)

On this day in 1991, NASA’s Galileo spacecraft flew by asteroid Gaspra, which is located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Galileo conducted a quick fly-by while flying towards Jupiter and its moons. The spacecraft also visited the asteroid Ida.

Asteroid Gasprawas first discovered back in 1916 by Russian astronomer G. N. Neujmin, who decided to name it after the Black Sea retreat of Gaspra, a Ukrainian spa town currently occupied by the Russians.

Here is some additional information from NASA about the asteroid, which has similar features to the asteroids now serving as moons to Mars (Phobos and Deimos):

A striking feature of Gaspra’s surface is the abundance of small craters. More than 600 craters, 100-500 meters (330-1650 feet) in diameter are visible here. The number of such small craters compared to larger ones is much greater for Gaspra than for previously studied bodies of comparable size such as the satellites of Mars. Gaspra’s very irregular shape suggests that the asteroid was derived from a larger body by nearly catastrophic collisions. Consistent with such a history is the prominence of groove-like linear features, believed to be related to fractures. These linear depressions, 100-300 meters wide and tens of meters deep, are in two crossing groups with slightly different morphology, one group wider and more pitted than the other. Grooves had previously been seen only on Mars’s moon Phobos, but were predicted for asteroids as well.

You car read more about the overall Galileo mission here.

Image (Credit): Artist’s rendering of the Galileo spacecraft arriving at Jupiter. (NASA)

Space Quote: Starlink Threatened by the Russians

Image (Credit): November 13, 2021 SpaceX launch of 53 Starlink satellites. (SpaceX)

“Quasi-civilian infrastructure may be a legitimate target for a retaliatory strike.”

-Statement to the United Nations by Russian senior foreign ministry official Konstantin Vorontsov in reference to attacking SpaceX’s Starlink satellites being used by the Ukrainian military as it pushes back the Russian invasion. In a Reuters article, “Russia’s Anti-satellite Threat Tests Laws of War in Space,” Iridium chief executive Matt Desch stated, “If somebody starts shooting satellites in space, I’d imagine it would quickly make space unusable.”

Iranian Astronomy Collaboration, Anyone?

Image (Credit): The Iranian National Observatory at night. (Shia News Association)

The Iranian National Observatory (INO) is now operational, with its first images now available (see sample below). After 20 years and $25 million, Iranian astronomers now have their own view of the heavens. Fine tuning of the telescope is underway, but it should soon be ready for its initial focus on the evolution of galaxies and stars as well as the study of exoplanets.

Sadly, this positive scientific news is overshadowed by international sanctions, riots in Iran, and the nation’s involvement in the sale of drones to Russia now being used to bomb Ukrainian cities.

Even with all of these problems, INO Project Director Habib Khosroshahi, an astronomer at the Institute for Research in Fundamental Sciences in Tehran, recently stated in Tehran Times, “The door is open from our side…” for collaboration with other science teams around the world.

It would be great if collaborative science could continue in this time of strife, as demonstrated by work on the International Space Stations, but it will be very difficult.

Image (Credit): First images of the INO showing to interacting galaxies. (INO)

Starlink Having Problems in Ukraine

Image (Credit): Starlink page explaining why Starlink satellites are better then geostationary satellites. (SpaceX)

As if Elon Musk doesn’t have enough problems with his Twitter purchase and declining shares at Tesla, now the Ukranians are reporting that SpaceX’s Starlink internet service failed to work during a critical point in their battle to push the Russians out of Ukranian territory. This problem has been going on for weeks, but we are hearing about it now.

SpaceX was silent when these reports came out, but some suggested this may have been a feature rather than a bug in the Starlink system to prevent it from being used by Russians.

Mr. Musk later tweeted on this matter, stating:

Bad reporting by [The Financial Times]. This article falsely claims that Starlink terminals & service were paid for, when only a small percentage have been. This operation has cost SpaceX $80M & will exceed $100M by end of year. As for what’s happening on the battlefield, that’s classified.

Sadly, Mr. Musk did not clear the air but rather boasted about his company and attacked the media. But another media story from The Eurasian Times shed more light on the issue. The newspaper reports that Russia may be using its Tirada-2S satellite communications electronic jamming system to interrupt Starlink signals.

I would rather SpaceX is the cause of the problem rather than the Russians, but whatever it is we can only hope the Ukrainians, SpaceX, and Ukraine’s allies have a quick fix. Mr. Musk should received accolades for adding a novel asset to this war, yet his entire Starlink enterprise, and not just his donated equipment, is now at risk.

Update: Elon Musk is now asking the Pentagon to assume the costs of the Ukrainian Starlink program, expected to cost SpaceX about $100 million by the end of the year. Given the ongoing Twitter battle between Elon Musk and the Ukrainians related to Mr. Musk’s proposed peace plan for the region, the Ukrainians should probably be looking for another funding partner rather than continuing to count on the generosity of Mr. Musk.

Further Update: Elon Musk is now backing off on his attempts to seek more funding for Starlink, but as usual he is not very graceful about it. Here is his recent tweet:

The hell with it … even though Starlink is still losing money & other companies are getting billions of taxpayer $, we’ll just keep funding Ukraine govt for free.

Such drama from the wealthiest man in the world.

Podcast: Avoiding a Nuclear Winter

Credit: wallpapersafari.com/

If you are looking for a heavy story, just listen into this week’s StarTalk podcast, “Nuclear Winter with Ann Druyan and Brian Toon.” You can hear all about the Future of Life award given to Carl Sagan and others for “reducing the risk of nuclear war by developing and popularizing the science of nuclear winter.” Yes, a great award for a bleak topic.

Ann Druyan (co-writer of the original Cosmos TV series, producer of the remade Cosmos, and Carl Sagan’s wife) and Brian Toon (Atmospheric Science Professor and one of the awardees) discuss the science that went into the nuclear winter idea back in the 1970s, as well as later briefings of the Vatican and Soviet government. Sadly, it appears the Russian’s were more open to the science than the Americans. Dr. Sagan and others battled with many leaders in the U.S. Government. Some things don’t change (or don’t change fast enough), so this battle within the U.S. Government continues. Of course, Putin is no Gorbachev, so who knows that he is thinking.

In fact, a 2017 paper by the Federation of American Scientists noted how Russia felt about the chance of nuclear war before today’s current events in Ukraine:

In other words, the United States has built and is building launch sites for nuclear missiles on the Russian border. This fact has been widely reported on Russian TV and has infuriated the Russian public. In June, Russian President Putin specifically warned that Russia would be forced to retaliate against this threat.

While Russian officials maintain that its actions are normal and routine, Russia now appears to be preparing for war. On October 5, 2016, Russia conducted a nation-wide civil defense drill that included 40 million of its people being directed to fallout shelters. Reuters reported two days later that Russia had moved its Iskander nuclear-capable missiles to Kaliningrad, which borders Poland.

Of course, our ability to survive as a civilization is a big part of the Drake Equation, which tells us the number of planets in the galaxy hosting intelligent life. So far, we are the only planet with intelligent life that we know about, and we cannot even agree whether launching a nuclear war will end our civilization. It is not a hopeful start to the quest for intelligent life.

Extra: Check out Mr. Toon’s TED Talk, I’ve Studied Nuclear War for 35 years – You Should Be Worried, for more on his concerns about nuclear proliferation. And if you are not scared enough, check out this article, “Even a Limited India-Pakistan Nuclear War Would Bring Global Famine, Says Study,” from the Columbia Climate School.