Monday, 2 February 2015

From your own backyard to the edge of the Solar System and Beyond

When we think of the terms space and astronomy, some of the first visual images that tend to come to mind are of worlds far away. In many ways, astronomy starts much closer to home, not just with what one can see in the night sky on a clear night from their back garden, but also from natural features common in everyday life, including pebbled rocks and ripples in sand. Such features are usually considered unremarkable because they are a common feature of our natural surroundings, especially for those of us who live near the coast, but when we see similar features on other worlds in the Solar System, we get excited!

Pebbled rocks on Titan photographed by Huygens
Note their similarity to pebbled rocks on Seaburn Beach, Sunderland

Images from the surface of Titan, Saturn's largest moon, taken by the Huygens probe in 2005 showed pebbled rocks on the surface generated excitement as they confirmed the existence of surface liquid, the only place in the Solar System apart from Earth where surface liquid has been found. Though rather than water, Titan's lakes are made up largely of methane, ethane and propane. More recently, the Rosetta mission to Comet 67P/C-G showed rippled landscapes similar to sand ripples commonly found on beaches on Earth being constantly shaped and reshaped by the tide. Such findings arouse excitement in the world of astronomy as they provide insight into what an early planet Earth may have been like when it was forming, long before it could support life, but while conditions that would later enable the planet to support life were developing, including the presence of water in solid, liquid and gas form together with a climate and atmosphere conducive for life to evolve into its many forms present today, including us.

Ripples on Comet 67P/C-G photographed by Rosetta
Again note their similarity to ripples on Seaburn Beach

Like railways, a subject that has featured much on this blog, astronomy is also considered and sometimes stereotyped as an Aspergic subject, perhaps for the level of detail and data it involves and the different colours and features visible on different planets and the shapes of the constellations. For some, including for myself when younger, may be an escape from coping with the ever-confusing social world on Earth looking out to where there may be worlds far away across space and time where they feel they would be more accepted, especially if they feel that aren't accepted in the society they live in or feel frustrated at not being able to make sense of the social world. This may also explain inspirations for science fiction, another past-time enjoyed by many people on the autistic spectrum.

As well as people with Asperger's Syndrome, it is a subject that has in recent times opened up to wider audience with the effect of Professor Brian Cox's documentary series and Stargazing Live. Locally in the North East, general interest and participation in astronomy also appears to have increased through Northumberland National Park together with Kielder Water and Forest Park being awarded 'Dark Sky' status and Look North weather forecaster and reporter Hannah Bayman's enthusiasm for the subject, including its effects on the weather, and in turn, how it affects our daily lives, often when we are least aware of it. Public participation in astronomy locally in Sunderland was evident during Sunderland Astronomical Society's 'Jupiter Night' last month held at their Cygnus Observatory located at Washington Wetlands Centre where a sizeable crowd turned out to get a look at Jupiter and the night sky's other sights through the several telescopes available.

Sunderland Astronomical Society's Cygnus Observatory
At first the sky was cloudy but it cleared up later and visitors were able to get some good views of Jupiter and its moons through the Cygnus Observatory's 14-inch reflector telescope and also of Comet Lovejoy before it disappears from sight, after which it won't appear again for over another 8,000 years. As well as the sights of the night sky, something that the event showed was both how great a social and family activity astronomy can be, including families affected by autism, especially if the skies are cloudy. Many people on the autistic spectrum can experience meltdowns or panic attacks in crowded places. Though avoidance of such situations is understandable, the lack of a viable alternative to being around others can also lead to social isolation and anxiety. Sometimes a way of learning to cope with such situations is to experience them at first in such an environment where they are with someone who understands their difficulties and where they are around like-minded people perhaps at an event related to an interest, and can provide a release from stresses and anxieties. With patience, social skills that develop over time through experience of such events can help one cope with and become more confident and assertive in social situations.
Readers of this blog may well remember me talking about how one of my favourite aspects of astronomy is how the stars in the night sky being as they were so many years ago can in effect represent your past while you are tuning into the present in a mindfulness context. One of my other favourite aspects of astronomy from the perspective of curiosity is how astronomical discoveries alter humankind's perception of the universe, including human convention on naming, classifying and cataloguing new worlds when they are discovered, and how knowledge gained from space exploration can often radically alter previous theories and pre-conceptions we may have had about the Solar System, the universe and our place within it. On such theory that had been suggested in the 19th century was that water arrived on earth courtesy of comets. This theory had briefly resurfaced with the Rosetta Mission, but though Rosetta's observations showed there was water vapour present on Comet 67P/C-G, it contains a higher level of deuterium than hydrogen than water vapour on earth has, making the theory that water arrived on Earth via comets unlikely.

Three such important discoveries that have radically changed human perception of the Solar System and the wider Universe include William Herschel's discovery of Uranus in 1781, the first planet discovered with the aid of a telescope, Edwin Hubble's 1923 observation that showed Andromeda as a galaxy beyond the Milky Way and most recently, the confirmation of the existence of the Kuiper Belt in 1992, a region of many small, icy worlds orbiting the Sun beyond Neptune. Though many other important astronomical discoveries have been made, these three particular discoveries opened human perception up to a much bigger Solar System, and in the case of Hubble's observation, a bigger Universe. Such discoveries have seen us alter previous theories and opening up further possibilities for us to approach using beginner's mind. This may involve building on present theories or taking apart old theories, altering them completely. As well as altering perception of the Solar System, the discovery of the Kuiper Belt, also altered human naming convention which saw the downgrading of Pluto from being the ninth planet from the Sun to being a 'dwarf planet' that orbits the Sun with many other companion worlds in the Kuiper Belt. Similarly, over 200 years earlier, Ceres, the first asteroid to be discovered by Guiseppe Piazzi in 1801, had been considered a 'planet' until within two years, two more bodies with similar sizes and orbits were found and astronomers began classifying them separately as 'asteroids'.

The 2006 Definition of a Planet published by the International Astronomical Union that 'downgraded' Pluto was merely an exercise in naming convention, with little to do with science. Though naming conventions are necessary to help us identify different worlds, sometimes just from such terminology it is easy to develop assumptions of what they may be like, and may turn out very different when observed up close. With the Dawn spacecraft due to visit Ceres (now 'upgraded' to dwarf planet status) next month and New Horizons due to visit Pluto, together with its largest moon Charon and the Kuiper Belt region in July, 2015 could be a fascinating year for astronomy with new knowledge to be gained from largely unexplored worlds and regions of the Solar System. Providing we learn from experience and mistakes, including the loss of the Beagle due to land on Mars in 2004 and the technical difficulties the Philae lander had when landing on Comet 67P/C-G, further space exploration this century could shed much new light on the Solar System building on knowledge already accumulated from previous missions.

Such missions can play a part, not just in arousing further interest in astronomy, but further general public interest and participation/engagement in science, a mission of Professor Brian Cox in his recently appointed role as the Royal Society's Professor for Public Engagement, whose own astronomical inspirations came from the Apollo Moon Missions and probes to the planets when growing up in the 1970s. Public awareness of and participation in science involves more than just scientists themselves and those who come from scientific backgrounds, but also the enabling of those like myself who have little scientific education or experience beyond GCSE level, or who, like me, considered themselves to be 'hopeless' at science at school, to make invaluable contributions. Such a wide range of public participation in science is important as science affects us all in various ways, directly and indirectly.

Kielder Observatory, Northumberland
Starting from observation of your natural surroundings on Earth and what can be seen in the night sky from your backyard, curiosity may lead one to enquire deeper into astronomy and its related sciences. As well as at the top level through the Royal Society, at grass roots level developments like the Kielder Observatory (the vision Gary Fildes) and local astronomical organisations including Sunderland Astronomical Society, Northumberland Astronomical Society and many others throughout the country also serve an important role in enabling access to those who wish to pursue it further.

As access to the night sky is free, astronomy is well placed to enhance public engagement in science, as it is a science to which the amateur can not only make a significant contribution to but obtain much enjoyment from. Just to get simple enjoyment out of it, one doesn't necessarily have to spend a fortune on state-of-the art equipment, a notion that the late former Sky at Night presenter Sir Patrick Moore helped to dispel, as much can be seen with a small pair of binoculars or even the naked eye on a clear night from your backyard. Above all, as Jupiter Night showed, it is also highly enjoyable as a family and social activity.

Special thanks to Sunderland Astronomical Society, Northumberland Astronomical Society and all involved in organising Jupiter Night and their hospitality.

1 comment:

  1. Just as this post was published, NASA have announced plans to send a probe to explore Europa, one of Jupiter's four largest moons