Pamela has a day job, remember? As an astronomer? Recently the 45th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference occurred in the The Woodlands, Texas. Pamela and guest astronomer Sondy Springmann will let us know about the big announcements made at this year’s conference.
This episode is sponsored by: Swinburne Astronomy Online
Bay of Fundy Tides
Transcription services provided by: GMR Transcription
Female Speaker: This episode of Astronomy Cast is brought to you by Swinburne Astronomy Online, the world’s longest-running online astronomy degree program. Visit astronomy.swin.edu.au for more information.
Fraser: Astronomy Cast Episode 341, the 45th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference with Sondy Springmann. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, our weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos, where we help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know. My name is Fraser Cain. I’m the publisher of Universe Today, and with me is Dr. Pamela Gay, a professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, and the Director of Cosmo Quest. And our special guest star, Sondy Springmann from the Arecibo Observatory. Hello Pamela.
Pamela: Hello, and welcome Sondy. It’s great to have you on finally.
Sondy: I’m as pleased as punch to be here.
Fraser: Awesome. So who are you and what do you do, Sondy?
Sondy: I work at Arecibo Observatory. We find asteroids before they find us. So my job is Junior Planetary Defender and Space Rock Zapper.
Pamela: Is that your honest title? Are you really a space, and earth defender?
Sondy I wish.
Pamela: Do you have business cards with that?
Sondy: My business card right now says Asteroid Radar Astronomer and Writer. But on LinkedIn, I think it says Junior Planetary Defender and Space Rock Blaster.
Sondy: Which is what my officemate has as well, so I guess now that he’s a research scientist, he’s just a Space Rock Blaster.
Fraser: Yeah, I think you need to lose the junior, and just switch to Space Rock Blaster.
Sondy: And that’s really just a glorified way of saying data analyst and observing support. So what we do is we have the world’s most powerful planetary radar system in our backyard. We have a 1,000 foot diameter – that’s 305 meter for our metric friends – telescope. It sits in a giant sinkhole in the hills at the observatory, and we send radio waves out to asteroids, and they bounce off. So most astronomy is done, and you rely on the benevolence of the universe for your photons, for your signal. Radar says, “Nope. We are gonna create our own signal. We are gonna bounce it off asteroids and see what we get back.” That’s what we do all day. It’s great fun when the system works. And the system is not working right now, but hopefully it will be up and running again.
Fraser: Yeah, that’s right. You guys had an earthquake a couple –
Sondy: We had an earthquake, and it damaged one of the cables. I’m almost done with a post-develop app for the planetary society. The long and short of it is the telescope was down for two months. And usually when the telescope’s down, whether due to a painting project or something else, you can usually work on things. But because there was actual damage to the support system of the telescope, no one could go up and do non-essential work on the telescope. So we couldn’t do regular maintenance.
So a lot of things that would have gotten looked at or repaired during a downtime did not get worked on. So they’re trying to catch up on that. And right now they’re plugging water leaks in the system, because we cool our transmitters with 300 gallons a minute of deionized water, and you plug one leak, and then you find another leak somewhere else. And so you’re 500 feet up in the air, and trying to diagnose water leaks. And I hear it’s not a lot of fun. But someone’s gotta do it. You gotta find those asteroids.
Fraser: Before they find us.
Pamela: Which they do occasionally.
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Fraser: And so now the sort of purpose of this show is you’re going to be talking – well the original plan for this episode –
Sondy: Speaking of asteroids, finding out, this is [inaudible] [0:04:04]. Can everyone see this? This is Soviet Russia, meteorite find you. So this is the thing that hit Russia last February, and made a lot of people very sad when it knocked out their windows. So sometimes they do find us, but our goal is to find the really big ones before they would hurt anyone seriously.
Fraser: That is so cool. Seriously. So, right, when we had originally planned out this show, Pamela was going to be attending the 45th LPSC conference. This is the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference? Did I get that right?
Sondy: You got it.
Fraser: Okay. In Texas, but then because Pamela’s schedule is always bananas –
Pamela: It had nothing to do with my schedule. I got pneumonia.
Fraser: Pneumonia, schedule.
Sondy: I shouldn’t laugh. I’m sorry, Pamela. I’m really glad you’re better now.
Fraser: Nothing’s funnier than pneumonia.
Pamela: It’s funny.
Sondy: No, no. What’s less funny than pneumonia is a number of people got something bacterial, nasty, after the conference.
Pamela: So I’m glad I didn’t go?
Fraser: The con crud. So, right, originally Pamela was gonna go to this, and Pamela couldn’t make it because she was sick. And so Sondy did make it, so we thought we would pick Sondy’s brain and find out what interesting thing happened. And what’s great about this is that a lot of the stuff that she got a chance to see never had a proper press release, never really made it outside the conference itself. And so you’re not gonna hear a lot of the news that – the stuff that gets announced there. Which is great. So that’s one of the reasons I really enjoy these conference is there’s so much stuff that’s sort of under the surface. So, now, you have sort of given us a big list of topics, and I’m gonna let you go wherever you want, Sondy, and pick whatever you wanna talk about.
Sondy: All right. Well let’s start with Edgard Rivera Valentin’s abstract. He was talking about Iapetus, which is that Yin Yang moon of Saturn. It’s the one that’s got a dark section and a light section, and it’s got an equatorial ridge, like a walnut. And it looks sort of like a larger version of this asteroid, without the moon. Ed, who’s hilarious, and he’s on Twitter – his handle is Planet Trekkie. He’s great. You should follow him because he’s very sassy. He wanted to see if the Nice model would prohibit this ridge on Iapetus. So there’s some discussion of how this ridge on Iapetus formed. But if the Nice model comes along –
Pamela: Explain the Nice model.
Sondy: Oh, the Nice model in the non-dynamicist answer is that once upon a time the solar system was in a slightly different configuration than how it is now. And Jupiter and Saturn had this migration in towards the sun, then out. Planets switched places. And when planets start switching places and moving, they excite all the little things in the solar system. So the Kuiper belt, all these asteroids got kicked out. They got relocated. And in the process it created something called the late heavy bombardment. And that sounds really bad. If you’re hearing heavy and bombardment and you’re a small planet, life is really going to suck, because you’re gonna be hit by all of these things.
So Ed pretty much went out and said, “How much would it suck to be Iapetus during this late heavy bombardment? And if the late heavy bombardment was really heavy, would it ruin this ridge on Iapetus, according to this idea that these planets migrated?” And Ed found out, yes. The late heavy bombardment was a little too heavy for Iapetus. So, perhaps, the Nice model needs to be changed. There are some different parameters. Maybe there were fewer things in the outer solar system potentially hitting Iapetus.
And what was really fun during this session, was I always following along on Twitter. I was live tweeting this talk, and some people were asking questions. So someone asked which Nice model did Ed use? So I got up to the microphone and said, “Ed, this is a question from the away team on Twitter. Which Nice model did you use?” And Ed answered it, and I typed out an answer. And so even Bill Bottke, who’s a dynamicist, he thought this was the best thing ever, that we’re using new media to ask questions during talks and answer things and to broadcast this out to a large audience.
Fraser: Well I think it’s the future, right? I mean a lot of these people don’t realize how much this science has a real interest outside of just the conference itself, that there are so many people that would love to see and participate in this. I mean, we used to do a live broadcast of all of the stuff happening at the AAS meetings. And there was great interest in that.
Sondy: And so, in conclusion, aside from that social media and Twitter are great things, it’s pretty much that this ridge on Iapetus is maybe younger than the late heavy bombardment because the late heavy bombardment would have erased this ridge if it was old. Maybe it didn’t record craters until after the late heavy bombardment. Maybe it was just sort of this warm, sludgy thing, rather than ice. Or maybe there were fewer, small bodies in the outer solar system to get excited during the late heavy bombardment. And/or maybe these satellites are really young. They didn’t form early in the solar system. And so maybe something else went on in the Saturn system. So as my college planetary science professor would say, astronomers hands wave wildly.
Fraser: Awesome. Keep going. More. What’s next?
Sondy: Okay. So my good friend and fairy god astronomer, as I refer to him, Andy Rivkin – he’s asrivkin on Twitter. And Andy is a great guy. He did a couple of things at this meeting. So the cool thing about LPSC is you can submit multiple abstracts. So he had one on Vesta, and he also had one on Ceres. Ceres is the largest dwarf planet. It was discovered on New Year’s 1801, I wanna say. And is a large asteroid in the outer asteroid belt. It’s a minor planet at this point in our classification scheme.
Pamela: But it was actually called a planet when it was first found. So Pluto is not the first object to be demoted. And so Pluto and Ceres are the only things to be have been called a planet and not visited by a U.S. spacecraft. And both with be visited in 2015. So anything in our solar system ever called a planet will have been visited by the end of 2015.
Sondy: And so the other thing is that Andy Rivkin is a huge baseball fan. So you can make all sorts of World Series jokes around him, and he loves them. I think. Anyway. Sorry non-sports ball people. Most asteroids that are big have collisional families. So how does a family form? Asteroid families have very dysfunctional starts. You have a big asteroid that gets hit by a little asteroid, and the big asteroid knocks into small pieces. Or, if you’re Vesta, you have something knock off a sizable chunk – a part of you – and you create a 10 kilometer crater, and all these pieces go scattering out in the asteroid belt, and some of them even fall to earth.
So today at Nasa Johnson, I got to hold a piece of what people are pretty sure is the mantle of Vesta. It’s diogenite. It’s green olivine crystals, which is super cool. So if you’ve been to Hawaii, if you’ve been to volcanic portions of New Mexico, Arizona, or really pretty much any other volcanic on earth, you’ll see olivine crystals; diogenite crystals, which are brought up from the mantle by volcanoes. So we assume that Vesta was pretty volcanic. It separated into a crust, a mantle, and a core, and that this mantle that got sampled by something hitting chunks off of it, chunks of it have come down to earth as meteorites.
We don’t see meteorites from Ceres, and we don’t see a Ceres family. So we don’t see chunks of Ceres that have been kicked off and gone into the asteroid belt. So there is some discussion as to why there isn’t a Ceres family. So this is a pretty big asteroid. We assume that things have been hitting it for a while. Chunks have gotten knocked off of it. We even have meteorites from Mars. There’s speculation of meteorites from Mercury. Why not Ceres? And the idea is that Ceres is really icy. Every once in a while, someone will come out and say that Ceres is actually a refugee from the Kuiper belt, that it is something from the outer solar system that got knocked inward, but it didn’t necessarily form in the asteroid belt. Whether or not you believe that, Ceres does have ice.
So Andy Rivkin and his co-authors put out that chunks from Ceres have been knocked off, but because they’re so icy, the ice sublimates off and so the inherent Ceres signature has just been wiped away. It’s been erased. So there might be a Ceres family in the asteroid belt, but we can’t associate it with Ceres, because any signature has sublimed.
Fraser: And I know they’ve seen geysers on Ceres.
Sondy: Yeah. So there’s a lot. Ceres has an active surface. It’s not just a dead world. Things are going on there. So there might be other processes at work that have changed the surface of Ceres in comparison to the surface properties of what could be its dynamical family.
Fraser: It’s pretty ironic or, I guess, fortuitous, that one of the most interesting bodies in the solar system will happen to have a mission visiting it in a year.
Pamela I think that counts as very well planned on the part of NASA and the European Space Agency. Because this is a case of they quite perfectly wanted to explore two asteroids that were representative of the two different geophysical families in terms of where they are compared to the ice line in the asteroid belt. And going to two of the largest of each family was really a great way to get great data and figure out just what geophysics is possible in the asteroid belt.
Fraser: Well, do you typically see this? A flurry of science on an object that is going to be visited – like before Messenger arrived at Mercury? I guess because there’s all this focus and trying to sort of almost do the pre-science. You’re trying to figure out what questions you wanna ask, so that when the space craft gets there, you can get as much data as you can.
Sondy: Right. And the other thing with space exploration is you plan your measurements, you plan to see this, and you plan to see that, but you know you’re gonna be surprised all the time. And there’s a lot of things that you’ll just serendipitously observe. So much of what we know about the solar system has just been discovered by accident in the course of sending spacecraft past objects. So, for instance, discovering that asteroids had moons. When Galileo went past an asteroid, it was an absolute accident that someone was processing the image, and discovered, “Hey, this asteroid Ida, it has a moonlet!”
Pamela: So, and thus we have Dactyl.
Sondy: Yay. Dactyl is adorable. It’s one of my favorite moonlets.
Fraser: Okay. Let’s move on. What else.
Sondy: So the wonderful Sarah Mattson has been – she’s a research at the University of Arizona, and she works for High Rise, which is a half meter-ish telescope in orbit around Mars, and it looks at Mars, and you can actually request images on Mars. And it’s pretty cool, because High Rise has actually showed that Mars is an active planet, which I think is just super neat. And that all these things keep going on. You have landslides. You have these wind effects. And that life on – well, life. Mars, itself, is really a world. It’s not just a dead thing. So this is sort of a theme here. And that you see lot these pits opening up. In the north polar layer deposits, there was a photo that made it around recently.
I think it was the High Rise selection of – the terrain sort of looks like a labyrinth, and that you get these, that the winds come off the North Pole. They cause this sublimation, and you get these interesting pits opening up. So really it’s a – Mars is really a planet in motion. And that the wind action, some sort of wind is probably responsible for creating these pits. And theirs might be – so, as seasons change on Mars, you’ll be able to investigate these things further. But the fact that you can actually do this and start doing sort of time-scale geology on Mars remotely is just incredible.
Fraser: I mean, this is really a testament to the resolution of this telescope, really, on the spacecraft, and the fact that it’s imaged so much of the planet, that you’re not getting the chance to come back and look at these regions again and again, year after year, and really start to see these, as you said, boulders rolling down hills, you’re seeing fresh gullies being created. You’re seeing dust devil tracks along the surface of –
Sondy: And it’s not just cratering. It’s actually wind. It’s things that are intrinsic to the planet. They’re not just stuff from space hitting it, which I just think is so cool.
Pamela: And this particular discovery highlights the High Wish program, where anyone can put in and say, “Hey. Wouldn’t it be awesome if, and put in suggestions to direct the mission. And this is a no PhD required awesome bit of science. And I’m really intrigued to see how far this will go, as missions last long enough that the people who built the mission start to relinquish control, and let other people with amazing science step forward and say, “Can we look for this?”
Sondy: Right. And the other cool thing about this is that Sarah, she doesn’t have a PhD. She’s been working in this office for a while, and really good science happens from people, regardless of a certain piece of paper they have. And you can follow Sarah on Twitter. She’s artmathgirl, and she also has two kittens that fell out of the ceiling at the Mars office there last year, and their names are Phobos and Deimos.
Fraser: Right, as part of the Sondy-kitten replacement.
Sondy: I had nothing to do with these cats, but they’re on Twitter. They’re celling cats. So I think Sarah is pretty awesome, not only because she has cats, but because she studies Mars and shows that Mars is really this dynamically interesting place.
Fraser: Fantastic. All right, moving on. What’s next?
Sondy: All right. So we’ve talked about Ceres. Let’s talk about the throat of Kraken.
Fraser: What, what now?
Sondy: The throat of Kraken. We’re not talking about rum. We’re not talking about giant cephalopods. We’re talking about Titan’s Sea. So I got suckered into learning how to sail when I was about 11, and then I got volunteered to teach sailing at the sailing club when I was 16. And then somehow I wound up on the board of a sailing club when I was 24, 25. And so I really like boats. I really like seas. I really like sailing. And the fact that we’re starting to see on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, tides, and that you’re starting to see that these seas might have waves. You might actually see some – you’re starting to see Titan as a planet, as a world. Not just a moon, but as a world, and there are actual processes going on there, which is I think is super neat.
So the person who works on this, his name is Ralph Lorenz. And Ralph is great, because he does all sorts of fieldwork. He did something on the rocks at racetrack in Death Valley. There are these rocks that move mysteriously. But when you’re talking about Titan, he’s been publishing work in ocean engineering journals. This is very interdisciplinary work. So it’s sort of interesting to see what tidal amplitudes you’re seeing, what the height of tides. It’s not a resident basin, like the Bay of Fundy, in Maine and Canada, but there’s other things that work on Titan to affect tidal heights.
Fraser: Because it’s all mixed up, right? It’s all backwards, right? That here on earth, the tides are caused by the moon.
Sondy: Right, right?
Fraser: And on Titan, it’s all reversed, right? The tides are caused by Saturn pulling on ammonia and methane on Titan, right?
Pamela: And for people who don’t know what resonant tides or the Bay of Fundy is, why don’t you go ahead and explain that?
Sondy: Oh, okay. So if you’ve ever been up to Maine or Northeastern Canada, there’s this bay, and it’s super narrow – not necessarily narrow, but you get these tide changes – 20 feet, 30 feet, 40 feet.
Pamela: If it’s Northern Nova Scotia, and there’s some amazing photographs where you see the tide goes all the way out, and the it dries the bay. It suddenly looks like surface of alien work. I’ll see if I can post some photos later. And when the tide comes back in, in some places streams that are trying to drain into this inlet reverse direction. You get the water goes up 30 feet. It’s one of the most amazing sets of, well, reactions to the changes in the tide that we have on the surface of the earth.
Fraser: I’m at the same level, same latitude as the Bay of Fundy, so but we don’t have tides –
Pamela: But it doesn’t have anything to do with latitude.
Fraser: Right. We don’t have those kinds of tides.
Pamela: It has to do with the geography of the floor in that area, and how the water is forced to funnel.
Sondy: So the thing that Ralph Lorenz is finding on Titan is that there might be tidal amplitudes of four meters, which, you know, that’s over 12 feet. Whereas in Puerto Rico where I live, we maybe get amplitudes of a meter, a half meter. It’s not very much, so that on Titan, you’re getting more extreme tides than where I’ve been living for the last year and a half, and that the tides flow at a half meter per second. That’s serious business. So, if you’re ever gonna land the Titan Mare Explorer, which is a boat that would go sailing on the seas of Titan, which is –
Fraser: So cool.
Sondy: If this ever happens, which I’m gonna do whatever I can in my power to ensure it does, and launching late twenties, getting there in 2040 – long game, Sondy, long game. You really have to take these things into consideration when you’re planning a space mission to go sailing on the seas of Titan. And I’m just gonna keep saying sailing on the seas of Titan until you bring out the hook or tell me to move on. So I think that’s pretty cool, and you can get depths of these basins and channels on Titan doing dissymmetry, so you can time how long it takes for radar pulse to go through the liquid and come back. And based on the timing and based on the attenuation, how much the signal goes down, you can get an idea of how deep these bodies of water are on Titan. So they have a maximum depth of about three to seven meters. So you have tides that are about, on order of how deep these seas are, or even deeper, more, so there could be parts of Titan that are getting dry.
Sondy: Right? I know this is wild.
Fraser: And then just filling back up and moving around. It’s just crazy. Okay, let’s move on. I think we’ve got time for maybe one last piece of science. You’ve got one more?
Sondy: I’ve got a piece of almost science. So, we don’t just talk about science at these conferences. We also talk about outreach. How do you educate people about the work you do? Why solar system science is so cool. Why our work is really fantastic and exciting. And it’s not just going into classrooms, which is important work. And it’s not just teaching. And it’s not just Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops. It’s also reaching out to adult communities who might not just be the interested public. So a lot of what we do most of the time is talking to people who are generally interested in space.
So at the University of Arizona, there’s a grad student, Jamie Molaro, and she’s been doing a art show for the last year, and she’s gonna do it again this year, where they bring together art and science communities to talk to the public about science. So they get local artists. They actually get faculty to present their art in an art show at the university. And everyone who submits art, their art gets selected. And art could be for sale. And it’s very neat to see some of the art pieces. And if you look at the Lunar and Planetary Lab grad skits in the fall, there’s a skit involving the department chair telling someone to go steal a piece of art. So it’s very engaging, and some of the professors are quite accomplished artists, which is – and so this is an event geared towards everyone in the community who might not be a space nut, but who likes art. And maybe they can learn some planetary science in the process.
Fraser: That is really cool. Before we wrap this up, I’d love to get some sort of – you’re insights about what it’s like to actually attend some of these conferences. How do you feel – if a person’s just getting into their career, they’re going to school. How important is it for them to attend these kinds of conferences?
Sondy: I think these meetings are great because you can learn a lot of science, but most importantly, you can meet the people who do the science. And if you’re interested in working with people, you can get to meet them. You can see do I actually wanna work with this person, or is there maybe someone else they can recommend working with.
But also you can ask people questions. When I first went to this meeting three years ago, I was writing my Master’s thesis. And I chased someone down and I sat down with him for 30 minutes and asked him a whole bunch of questions about his work, since my work was expanding on his, and it was a really great opportunity to sort of pick his brain in person, get some figures from him that I could use in my thesis, and sort of contextualize my work. So that was super nice. And then also I know a lot of people at these meetings, sometimes if someone’s hiring for a position, they’ll do interviews at these meetings.
And I also like it because I get to meet people who I’ve never met before. I get to make friends in the Mars community. There’s not a lot of natural overlap with what I do and the Mars community. So being able to meet Martians or people who wanna go sailing on the seas of Titan is really great. And, as you can tell, I get really excited about sailing on the seas of Titan, so even though I’m not a Titan person, maybe I’ll try to become one as my life goes on, because sailing would be very cool.
Fraser: Right. They got your attention when they said sailing.
Pamela: And beyond this, what’s really amazing is how it can open doors. I remember the very first time I went to LPSC back in, I guess it was March of 2003, I ran across a very young undergraduate. I think she was a freshman at the time. Carry Bean. And she was presenting her research. She was sitting there at one point, wearing the medals she’d won at space camp, because that was still exciting. She was probably all of 17 or 18. And over the years she’s gotten to know people in the entire field of planetary science. And now, I believe, she’s a part of the Mars Curiosity team. And –
Sondy: Is now working on Dawn, which is headed [inaudible] [0:26:35].
Pamela: That’s right. She’s going to Dawn.
Sondy: She’s moved on from Mars. She’s come in a little closer to the asteroid belt.
Pamela: Yeah, so she’s gotten to advance her career by going to these meetings, basically as a baby scientist, and growing up in front of all of us.
Sondy: I mean, this is how I got my current job at Arecibo. I met my current boss at this meeting three years ago. And he had remembered me from when I had applied for a summer internship at Arecibo and didn’t get it. And so a year and a half after my first LPSC, I finally got the job at Arecibo. So being able to meet people in person is huge. And as meetings go, it’s not terribly expensive.
Sondy: The registration fee is pretty low. There are a lot of area hotels and a lot of them have rollaway beds or pullout couches, so grad students can pile into rooms and not be too uncomfortable. So I shared my hotel room with two grad students this year. And they’re both super awesome people who I wouldn’t have met otherwise. So it’s a really great networking opportunity. It’s not just great for science.
Fraser: Awesome. All right. Well, Sondy, thank you so much for joining us this week’s episode of Astronomy Cast. And Pamela, I know you were sad to not make it, but I hope this was like the second best thing to being there, was having Sondy report in.
Pamela: I think the second best is the fact that it wasn’t just Sondy. They opened it up to new media legitimately this year, giving internet access on a secondary network that was just for them, to Sondy, to Emily Lakdawalla, and –
Sondy: We had the micro blogger thing last year, too, but the network was slightly more reliable this year.
Pamela: So thank you so much for being part of our community and bringing all of this to us.
Sondy: No problem.
Fraser: All right. And then if you discover something new out there, or zap an asteroid, we’ll have you back.
Sondy Pew pew. Pew pew.
Fraser: And when your new sailing mission is officially launched, and you’re the Primary Investigator, we’ll have you back to talk.
Sondy In 26 year, Fraser. In 26 years.
Fraser: 26 years. All right, well thanks a lot, Sondy. Thanks Pamela.
Pamela: Thank you.
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