The “All New!” Burke-Gaffney Observatory

1 11 2014

bgopreviewOver the past 18 months Cosmoboy has been honoured to be a part of the Burke-Gaffney Observatory renovations at Saint Mary’s University. Built in 1972 to honour Father Burke-Gaffney, it has become an icon of the Saint Mary’s campus. But in all that time it has never had significant renovations – beyond CCD upgrades – and much has changed in astronomy technology. By the time of the 40th anniversary it was clear that revitalization of the BGO was needed!

Plans were hatched by the Observatory Director Dave Lane and Cosmoboy in the fall of 2012. The ambitious renovation proposal included a new 24.5 inch telescope (from Planewave, their CDK24 model), and adding an observing deck so we could show more of the sky at a given time. That would also increase the student and visitor capacity of the observatory – we’ve had days when the queue went down the stairs… Which doesn’t make it much fun anyone.

Medjuck_familyThe University was supportive from the get-go, but budgets were tight and we were asking for significant funds. In the end, our Office of Advancement came to the rescue and through our President’s Office the well known local philanthropist Dr Ralph M. Medjuck was approached. As many people in town are aware, Dr Medjuck and his wife Mrs Shirlee Medjuck (right with their daughter Linda) have donated considerable sums to Halifax universities in support of education. To cut to the chase, Dr Medjuck agreed to support the project, and we named the telescope in his honour.

I’ve said thank you to our benefactors so many times already, but I can’t write this blog post without saying thanks again to Dr and Mrs Medjuck. Without their support, and that of Saint Mary’s University at large, this project would not have been possible.

bgo_titleBut cut to April 2013, things were moving forward. At that point we decided the project was a “sufficiently big deal” for the university and the department that we should make a short documentary on it. Local filmmaker and astronomy fan Martin Hellmich agreed to take the challenge on! The resulting film can be seen here – watch it in HD! There are some really fantastic time-lapses in there – we were pretty gobsmacked when Martin first showed them to us! Go watch it!

BGO_telescopePainting of the dome and mount happened during the summer of 2013 and turned out to be much more of an adventure than we had anticipated. To cut a long story short, you really need to prime well! But we all think the final look is great – the white of the pier matches the black and white of the Medjuck telescope perfectly, while the blue accents the small details on the ‘scope. Kudos to Dave Lane for picking out the colours! Note, the paint has to stand up to some tough conditions – the observatory gets brutally hot in the summer and cold in the winter (snow will often sneak into the dome through the gap between the rotating and stationary parts).

obsdeckFencing off the observatory deck also encountered a few glitches. The initial drilling was done at the end of exam time and understandably some complaints were made about the noise! So we held off finishing that until all the exams were done. But the end product looks great, and we all agree the view from 22 floors up is simply mind-blowing – especially at night! So if we get parents that aren’t too interested in astronomy bringing their children along to open houses, we still have something to take their breath away.

install_scopeOf course, the most fun part of the whole project was the new telescope arrival and installation! With a 6 month delivery time, we had our fingers crossed it would be delivered just before Christmas 2013 so that we could swap it in for the new term starting in January 2014. Everything went to plan. But installing a new telescope in the middle of December in Canada is a chilly proposition! So we had to borrow a 5kW heater to warm things up. The 40 year old mount bolts were just fine as well, despite us being very worried about the possibility of things breaking!

press_confAnd finally bringing the story up-to-date, this week (October 2014) we’ve been able to celebrate the installation and thank everyone involved! There’s still a lot of work to be done on the social media side, but the hardware is all in place. The press events this week went off fantastic, and some of our friends in the media did an awesome job of letting people in Halifax know about the renovations (here, here, here, here). We’re just over the Moon (sorry! 🙂 ) to have everything get to this point!

So please, if you’re in Halifax and want to take look, reserve a ticket and come to a public night! We’d love to see you there!

Tracking Curiosity

28 11 2011

Just a very quick post today, and one that’s a tad frustrated… I’ve been searching on line for a website that shows how far Curiosity is from Mars. If you go to the JPL mission website it will tell you how many days (great!) but I’m looking for something that tells you the distance. And so far I’ve found nothing… De nada. So I’d appreciate hearing from anyone who’s seen something like this on line.

In principle this isn’t too hard to do. You really only need a computer program that calculates the orbital trajectories of the Earth, Mars and Curiosity. Working out the distance from this model is actually easy. To set the model up you need the orbital positions and speed of all three of them. The Earth and Mars can be found easily, Curiosity seems a tad harder. I’m guessing it must be on line somewhere?

What you can find online is Curiosity’s position on the sky as it heads to Mars. JPL has it’s incredibly useful solar system data accessible through the HORIZONS on-line system. While I’ve not been able to figure out (yet!) how to get it to give me the orbital data I want, I have been able to use it to plot Curiosity’s celestial coordinates for the next month (these are for Halifax, Nova Scotia). While I’m not suggesting anyone go out and look, here are the next 6 days for fun:

Date__(UT)__HR:MN R.A._(ICRF/J2000.0) DEC

2011-Nov-28 00:00 08 19 14.59 -00 25 54.0

2011-Nov-29 00:00 m 08 21 53.08 +00 24 00.4

2011-Nov-30 00:00 m 08 22 59.29 +00 46 26.5

2011-Dec-01 00:00 m 08 23 33.30 +00 59 40.4

2011-Dec-02 00:00 m 08 23 51.82 +01 08 43.7

2011-Dec-03 00:00 m 08 24 01.34 +01 15 34.3

This area on the sky is between the constellations Hydra, Monoceros and Canis Major. Utah amateur astronomer Patrick Wiggins took this series of images on the morning of November 27th one day after launch (you can see Curiosity moves from frame to frame in the middle of the image)

As an added bonus HORIZONS will also tell you some additional data about Curiosity:

* Spacecraft
Mass: 3,893 kilograms total at launch,
2,401-kilogram EDL system (aeroshell + fueled descent stage)
539-kilogram fueled cruise stage

Cruise vehicle (cruise stage, aeroshell, w/rover & descent stage)
Diameter: 14 feet, 9 inches (4.5 meters)
height: 9 feet, 8 inches (3 meters)

Rover name: Curiosity
Rover dimensions:
Length: 9 feet, 10 inches (3.0 meters) (not counting arm)
Width: 9 feet, 1 inch (2.8 meters)
Height at top of mast: 7 feet (2.1 meters)
Arm length: 7 feet (2.1 meters)
Wheel diameter: 20 inches (0.5 meter)
Mass : 899-kilogram rover
Power: radioisotope thermoelectric generator & lithium-ion batteries

OK, so I’m sure I can probably hunt through the data from HORIZONS to figure out the trajectory, and then figure this all out! I’m sure, however, that the trajectory file is probably accessible somewhere, as it’s quoted in the data from HORIZONS as “msl_spk_cruise_1126-1502-tzero_v1_dsnsch”. It’s out there… Somewhere… Time to do some digging…

Curiosity Rover: Cruising on the Deep Space Network

27 11 2011

After all the excitement of yesterday’s launch, things are going to be fairly quiet until August. But Cosmoboy thought it would be fun to take a little look at Curiosity’s trip to Mars. How far does it have to go? How is the steering accomplished? How do we stay in contact?

Communicating with spacecraft is not easy. As the recent Phobos-Grunt disaster shows, once you lose contact getting it back is tough. The Earth’s rotation also means you can’t just rely upon one communication facility as every few hours it’s going to be pointing in the wrong direction. So you need a bunch of dishes dotted around the world. And that’s exactly what NASA’s Deep Space Network is, a system of three stations separated by 360/3=120 degrees apart on the Earth. There are dishes in:

Goldstone, in the Mohave Desert in California. The Goldstone facility actually contains five antennas, the biggest of which is the recently refurbished 70m “Mars” antenna. The name of this antenna actually comes from the face that it was first used to pick up the Mariner 4 spacecraft which had been lost by smaller antennas during its Mars fly-by. Since that time the dish has tracked Voyager 2 as it passed Uranus and Neptune as well as Spirit and Opportunity on Mars.

Robledo de Chavela, Spain which is about 60 km west of Madrid. (Note, the website is in Spanish, so unfortunately I couldn’t delve into as much detail as I hoped, and ironically it looks much better than the Goldstone website!).  This facility also has five antennas, including a 70m dish that weighs 8000 tons. Like the other two facilities, the receivers sit in an area that is somewhat bowl  shaped to shield it (as much as possible) from terrestrial radio interference.

Tidbinbilla, Australia which is about 30 km from Canberra (love the cows, this is farm land!). This station has the smallest number of active antennas, at three. Like the other two it’s largest dish is also 70m. Some film buffs probably remember the movie “The Dish” with Sam Neil, actually this facility isn’t the one referenced there. That was Honeysuckle Creek, which closed in 1981. In fact, there were once seven tracking stations across Australia.

Steering Curiosity is a bit like driving using your rear view mirror. The spacecraft relays signals back to the Earth and then course adjustments are sent back. Curiosity isn’t really looking for Mars or piloting toward it directly, instead that’s being handled through the DSN. Importantly, it has to be done with great accuracy, believe it or not sunlight will “push” Curiosity during it’s flight to Mars, and this needs to be taken into account (you don’t want to wind up hundreds of km off course). What’s more, by the time Curiosity reaches Mars and enters the atmosphere it needs to know very precisely where it is, any errors in position could be disasterous.  There’s only 70 kg of propellant to make course corrections, i.e. two tanks of gas in a 350 million mile journey!

Depending upon the precise launch time, NASA had a bunch of different possible trajectories all laid out. As it happens, Curiosity launched bang on the number one launch time of 10:02 am EST. With the trajectory laid out, it’s now a matter of tracking and making sure all the thruster burns happen on time. If you’re wondering, the thrusters are actually pretty low power, they have only 1 lb of thrust. Some of the maneuvers thus take hours of burn.

But by and large, getting Curiosity to Mars is routine. It’s been done before. And as I keep reminding everyone, the landing is where things get interesting!

Curiosity Launch: It went like clockwork!

26 11 2011

Congratulations to everyone involved with the Mars Science Laboratory launch!


Curiosity launched today at 10:02 am (Update: according to a NASA Kennedy tweet the official liftoff time was 10:02:00.211 a.m. EST – how’s that for precision!?) on a partly cloudy but otherwise good day at the Cape. The weather threatened to put things off early in the day with a little bit more rain than expected in the area, but otherwise things seemed to go really well. It was actually pretty funny to hear a NASA weather forecast that mentioned the incoming cosmic ray flux: “The proton flux is within bounds”. You don’t hear that on CBC! 🙂

Omar Baez, the NASA Launch Manager, commented

“…All the right things that they wanted to do in those crucial few minutes happened like clockwork.”

“The Atlas and Centaur were flawless. They got us to where the satelite needed to go we hit the window right at the beginning and everything appears nominal for the flight.”

During the countdown they focused closely on the wind and some of the rain bearing clouds in the area, but there was nothing of note to report other than a small couple of telemetry issues.

The interplanetary injection burn, and separation of the Curiosity spacecraft from the Centaur rocket all seemed to go perfectly from the vantage point of the onboard camera on the rocket (you could see the happy faces in the control room!) Can’t find a video of this on line yet… Update! Here it is. The spacecraft was picked up by the Deep Space Network just minutes later.

You can see the whole launch sequence here – it was just a perfect lift-off on a great day for flying!

Relief! (If I feel that way, I can’t begin to feel how good all the scientists and engineers that have worked for years on this project must feel!) Now we wait 8 months for Curiosity to make it’s way to Mars. Inertia and gravity are in control of the spacecraft now. But… when it gets close to Mars, things get really interesting

Countdown to Curiosity: today’s the day!

26 11 2011

Weather update: Looking good! Low wind, partly cloudy.


This morning Cosmoboy realized that one important piece of equipment hadn’t been covered in the “Countdown” series: the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS). This is Canada’s contribution to Curiosity’s instrument suite! APXS was built in Richmond B.C. by MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd and the Principle Investigator is Dr Ralph Gellert at the University of Guelph. Dr Gellert actually designed a previous version of the instrument for Spirit and Opportunity, so he’s a bit of a star of the Canadian space instrumentation scene!

OK, so what does APXS actually do? Basically, APXS is an instrument for determining precisely what elements are present in a given sample. To do this APXS will rely on two techniques, Particle-Induced X-ray Emission (PIXE) and X-ray Fluorescence (XRF). PIXE relies upon the fact that fast moving alpha particles can knock electrons from the lowest energy levels of atoms right out of the atom itself. This leaves an atom with an unstable configuration of electrons, and one of the electrons in the high energy levels of the atom will now drop down to the low level one, emitting an X-ray as it does so. APXS has a detector to capture these X-rays and we can determine the elements in the sample by looking at the energy of the X-rays – each elements emits X-rays with very specific energies, an energy signature if you like. PIXE is good for detecting lighter elements, essentially sodium through to calcium.

APXS contains Curium 244 as a source of alpha particles. But it also decays into Plutonium 240 (one of the tracer elements people have looked for in tracking Fukushima emissions) which emits X-rays that can in turn excite X-ray emission in other atoms. This is called X-ray Fluorescence and the idea is pretty much the same as PIXE, accept instead of alpha particles causing the excitation, this time it is incoming X-rays. The two methods turn out to be very complementary though as XRF is good for detecting heavier elements, calcium through to zirconium.

OK, so that’s the science behind APXS. For it to work effectively you have to be able to get close to the sample. So the emitter and detector part of APXS sits on the end of Curiosity’s robotic arm while the main electronics are back in side the body of the rover. The APXS on Curiosity is also 3 to 6 times better than the ones on Spirit or Opportunity. It will take data much more rapidly, and quick tests for a few specific elements can be done in as little as 10 minutes – it used to take several hours. It can even take data during the day as well, because a special active cooler has been added.

The main science goals of APXS are similar to that of CheMin – to understand the elemental composition of Martian geology, what elements are present and in what concentrations? The high precision of APXS will also allow it to look for any local anomalies in elemental abundances, which will help pinpoint interesting areas for further sampling with SAM. There is also a possibility of combining results with CheMin to find X-ray invisible compounds like bound water or carbonates.

How expensive was APXS to build? I’ll present this in a way that puts the investment in context. Curiosity’s overall budget is about 2.5 billion dollars. Canada’s gross domestic product is about 1/10th that of the US. So if we collaborate on a project with the US, you would anticipate that we might contribute about 10% of the overall cost, or around $250 million. Well, we didn’t do that, so about half that, say $100 million? Nope, I may as well cut to the chase, we spent $17.8 million. OK, so that’s still a good sum of money, but from an international perspective it’s a pretty minimal investment: 0.6% of the overall mission cost. I’ve written at length about the funding for the Canadian Space Agency and how low it is, and that’s true regardless of which party is in power. Although things are about to get notably worse as the CSA budget is to be cut by almost 25% beginning in 2013. But at least we’re involved, it could be worse.

APXS is a great instrument, and you can be sure that once it starts taking data on Mars there’s going to be a lot of interesting new discoveries!

T-minus one hour and counting…. Go Curiosity!

Countdown to Curiosity: 1 day to go!!!

25 11 2011

Weather update: it continues to look good for a launch tomorrow morning. The chance of rain is now down to 10%.


This is the final post in the “Countdown” series. Tomorrow Curiosity will begin its long journey to Mars. While the launch is a nerve wracking time for anyone involved, perhaps the most scary part of the mission is the landing. Curiosity will attempt to land on Mars using a method that’s never been used before: lowering down to the surface using a crane from a platform that is hovering under rocket power. If that sounds like it’s difficult to do – it is! NASA has a really neat movie of how it is all supposed to work.

Let’s quickly talk about the landing site first. Many of you will recall that during the Apollo missions the lunar module was piloted down to the surface. Neil Armstrong was actually seconds away from running out of fuel while he looked for a good place to put down Apollo 11, imagine what a disaster that could have been… Without the benefit of a human pilot, Curiosity needs to land in a region that’s relatively free of hazards. Fortunately, a series of surveyor satellites has given us incredible knowledge of the surface of Mars and the chosen site of Gale Crater has both good landing areas as well as a lot of interesting geography (including an alluvial fan likely deposited by water carrying sediments).

But let’s get back to the interesting bit, the landing procedure itself. Imagine hurtling toward a planet at tens of thousands of kilometers an hour. Your millions of miles away from the Earth and there’s no human pilot to plot a course once you’re inside the atmosphere to avoid any unexpected events. Sounds pretty risky, yeah? And it is… Beagle 2 was the last surface mission to fail (and we think we found the wreckage), but just four years earlier two missions, Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander, both failed as well. If you want statistics, NASA has landed on Mars successfully five (yes only five) times! And when it comes to Curiosity, the landing procedure that’s been chosen is more complex than any other mission before it…

While the Apollo missions entered into orbit around the Moon, Curiosity is going to slow down from interplanetary speeds without this step. In this sense its landing will be somewhat similar to the Apollo “splashdowns” on Earth. Thus Curiosity is going to hit the Martian atmosphere travelling at over 20,000 km per hour, and again, just like the Apollo missions, the spacecraft carrying Curiosity has a heat shield underneath to protect the rover from the extreme heat (a peak of 2100 C) produced in re-entry. All the steps that follow are given on this great graphic provided by NASA:

Once into the atmosphere Curiosity will begin a series of maneuvers at several times the speed of sound, before deploying its parachute while still at supersonic speeds. This part of the descent is anticipated to go pretty well. Supersonic breaking parachutes have been used since the Mercury missions in late 1950s early 1960s so the technology is nothing new.

But once Curiosity has descended to about 1.8 km above the surface, and is travelling at aroud 400 km per hour, it will separate from the parachute and begin a powered descent. In about 40 seconds it will be down to just 20m above the Mars surface, and then perhaps the most risky part of the whole mission begins: lowering to the surface on the end of a “sky crane”. Curiosity can’t just be “dropped” – it’s too heavy at almost 1 ton in mass. Once the sky crane is fully deployed the spacecraft will slowly descend down at about 0.75m per second. Once it detects that Curiosity is on the ground it will cut the lines on the crane and fly away at least 150 m away from the rover.

Amazingly, all this is going to be filmed. The MARDI descent camera will take 4 images per second during the maneuvers. If it all works, this is going to be one heck of a movie!

So, one day to go for the launch… Can’t wait for Curiosity to begin its journey!!!

Countdown to Curiosity: 2 days to go

24 11 2011

Weather update: Forecast for Cape Canaveral is still looking good for Saturday. There is a cold front that might possibly cause some problems, but forecasters put the probability of good launch weather still up around 70%


Yesterday we talked about the weather measurement experiments on Curiosity: the REMS package. Today we’ll focus an experiment that is going to measure the water and mineral content of Mars just below the surface. The name of the instrument is DAN, for Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons. The name may sound complicated, but the science behind the instrument is actually a simple idea.

DAN works in a quite ingenious way. If you fire high energy neutrons at a material then those neutrons will interact with the atomic nuclei in the material and either be absorbed or scattered in a certain direction. As it turns out, materials containing lots of hydrogen (which is typically locked up in either water or minerals) will slow down these high energy neutrons very efficiently and as a result the neutrons that are scattered will tend to be much lower energy than from regions with less hydrogen. That’s the basis of the experiment: fire neutrons at the ground and see what type of neutrons come back to your detector. If you get lots of low energy neutrons it means there’s a lot of water and minerals down there.

Life is always complicated though. So the big problem for Curiosity is that Mars is actually being bombarded constantly by cosmic rays which can create fast moving neutrons in the Martian surface. So any experiment you do has to be able to filter this effect out. DAN will actually do that using two detectors, one of which will block the low energy neutrons while the other will measure all the neutrons (including those generated by the cosmic rays). Subtract the two signals and you get the amount of low energy neutrons that are coming back.

How will DAN actually create the neutrons it fires into the ground? It will do so using a nuclear reaction of two types of hydrogen isotopes (tritium and deuterium) that will produce a helium nucleus plus a neutron as a result. This fusion reaction (deuterium is fired at a source containing tritium) will be very precisely controlled to produce a short pulse of neutrons that lasts about one millionth of a second. Once the neutrons have been fired then DAN switches over to follow the returning neutrons using its detectors. It will take data from 1 microsecond after the pulse through to about 10 milliseconds later.

But the neat thing about using a pulse is that you can figure out the distribution of water below the surface. The basic idea is you know exactly when the neutrons were fired and when the scattered neutrons were detected. Depending upon the depth of the water/mineral concentration the scattered neutrons will show up either earlier or later and in different amounts. From this time dependent signal we’ll be able to figure out just how deep the water is (at least down to about ~0.5m, the limit of what DAN can probe).

DAN’s overall role in MSL is pretty important. It’s going to provide a very clear picture of the overall water/mineral content just below the surface wherever Curiosity goes. It’s got over 10 million shots stored, so there isn’t too much worry about it being “used up” too quickly. It can also be used during traverses as well, there’s no need to stop and take a measurement. And on top of figuring out the subsurface water, DAN can also be used to look at the overall flux of neutron radiation background in the Mars environment. It’s a pretty neat little instrument.

Tomorrow: The impressive but risky descent