Captivated by Comets

25 February 2013
Presented by Ben Valsler, Dominic Ford.

2013 looks like a good year for comets! We find out where these balls of dust and ice come from and what to expect from Pan-STARRS and ISON. Plus, the close fly-by of Asteroid 2012 DA14, the fireball that exploded over Russia and your space science questions.

In this episode

01:25 - Curious About Comets

Dr Jonathan Shanklin may be better known as one of the men who discovered the hole in the ozone layer. So why the curiosity about comets?

Curious About Comets
with Dr Jonathan Shanklin, Director of the Comet Sections of the Britist Astronomical Association and Society for Popular Astronomy

Dr Jonathan Shanklin may be better known as one of the men who discovered the hole in the ozone layer. So why the curiosity about comets?

What is an asteroid made of?

We put this question to Dr Jonathan Shanklin, director of the Comet sections of the British Astronomical Association and the Society for Popular Astronomy...

From where do comets get their water?

We put this question to Dr Jonathan Shanklin, director of the Comet sections of the British Astronomical Association and the Society for Popular Astronomy...

How did Earth get its water?

We put this question to Dr Jonathan Shanklin, director of the Comet sections of the British Astronomical Association and the Society for Popular Astronomy...

How quickly will a comet evaporate?

We put this question to Dr Jonathan Shanklin, director of the Comet sections of the British Astronomical Association and the Society for Popular Astronomy...

17:56 - Mars Simulated in Morocco

This month has seen the MARS2013 simulation underway in a desert in the Northern Sahara...

Mars Simulated in Morocco

This month has seen the MARS2013 simulation underway in a desert in the Northern Sahara.  23 nations were involved in the simulation, which was headed up by the Austrian Space Forum.

The simulation consisted of a number of tests of equipment, protocols and instruments, most notably perhaps the Aouda.X Mars Spacesuit.

Mars rocksThe spacesuit was designed as a way to model and understand the real problems encountered and limitations created by wearing space suits on Mars.  In particular, they're very interested in understanding the potential for contamination in planetary exploration as well as the problems of coping with heat and low pressure.  They already know that the suit can perform within a temperature range of -100°C to +35°C, but they now need to know how easy it is to walk on rocky terrain or perform certain tasks while wearing the suit.

Testing it in the harsh conditions of a Moroccan desert will also allow the Austrian Space Forum to develop their "advanced human-machine interface" - a set of sensors and software designed to act as a local virtual assistant to whoever is manning the suit.  This system would then interact with other mission essential components such as rovers and external instruments.

Testing the suit is just a small part of the simulation, which includes experiments on a long-term medical monitoring system, various physiological and psychological tests, new laser-based life detection systems and even a lightweight quad-bike for getting around the surface of Mars.

All of the experiments are run from mission control in Austria, but with a clever twist - communication signals are delayed so that they can test not just the kit, but the problems we are likely to have communicating with a team on Mars.

The project comes to an close at the end of this month, so we should hope to see their results shaping any future plans of manned missions out into the solar system!

What is escape velocity?

We put this question to Andrew Pontzen...

What is the speed of gravity?

We put this question to Andrew Pontzen...

30:42 - Origins of Cosmic Rays

Since their discovery cosmic rays have been a mystery. Now, an orbiting gamma-ray telescope has managed to identify their source...

Origins of Cosmic Rays

Over the century since they were first discovered, cosmic rays have been something of a mystery. These particles (mostly protons) that hurtle through space at high speed and crash into the Earth's upper atmosphere seem to come from all directions equally. Where are these galactic projectiles coming from? And how do they come to be travelling so fast? This week an international team of researchers announce in Science magazine that they've unambiguously shown that at least some of the cosmic rays come from supernova remnants--expanding shells of matter from exploded stars--which are acting as natural particle accelerators.

Physicists have suspected for a long time that supernova remnants are a A supernovasource of cosmic rays because they've been able to detect tell-tale gamma rays--high energy photons--coming from such objects. The gamma rays are spawned by accelerated protons as they're released but the problem is that accelerated electrons also produce gammas and, until recently, it's been impossible to tell which particles are producing them.

However, the process by which protons generate gamma rays is different from electrons and has a minimum energy for the gammas produced. Electrons have no such low energy cut-off. The research team spent 4 years observing two nearby supernova remnants in our galaxy with the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope and clearly saw a cut-off in gamma ray numbers at the predicted energy. So we can now safely say that at least some of these galactic visitors are coming from the remains of supernovas.

36:47 - Asteroids & Fireballs: News from the RAS

It's been an unusual few weeks in astronomy - not only have we had a close fly-by of Asteroid DA14, but also a fireball in Russian skies...

Asteroids & Fireballs: News from the RAS
with Dr Robert Massey, Roay Astronomical Society

It's been an unusual few weeks in astronomy - not only have we had a close fly-by of Asteroid DA14, but also a fireball in Russian skies...

46:35 - Comets: What to expect in 2013

With C/2011 L4 Pan-STARRS in March and ISON in December, 2013 is looking to be a good year to put comets in your calendar...

Comets: What to expect in 2013
with Dr Jonathan Shanklin, Director of the Comet Sections of the Britist Astronomical Association and Society for Popular Astronomy

With C/2011 L4 Pan-STARRS in March and ISON in December, 2013 is looking to be a good year to put comets in your calendar...

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