Tuesday, 18 October 2011

In the Beginning

So, the first blog is the deepest...so they say

After rambling on Twitter and Facebook for some time (@nickastronomer on Twitter if you're so inclined) I decided to start a blog. To kick things off, I thought I'd start off with a post from a project I am working on with the Faulkes Telescope Team to find a long lost spacecraft..

Following a successful summer of asteroid hunting, a team of amateur astronomers are hoping to team up with scientists at the University of Glamorgan to search the sky for space debris, but this time it is a distinctly man-made object they are after – the Apollo 10 Lunar Module ascent stage.
The late 1960’s saw the most ambitious and incredible achievement in the history of mankind, culminating with the landing of Apollo 11 on the Moon. The practice run for this, Apollo 10, launched in May 1969, and aimed to carry out all the stages of the Apollo 11 mission except the lunar landing.  Apollo 10 still holds the record for the fastest human beings have ever flown; along with the distance record for the farthest mankind has ever been from the Earth.
Once it had completed its historic mission, the Lunar Module ascent stage, known as “Snoopy” (named after the famous “Peanuts” cartoon character), was sent off in an orbit around the Sun - and 42 years later, it’s still out there somewhere, travelling through space.
Now, the Faulkes Telescope team at the University of Glamorgan will be working with UK amateur astronomer Nick Howes, along with Ernesto Guido and Giovanni Sostero of the Remanzacco Observatory in Italy, to attempt what could be an
almost impossible task - finding Snoopy. And this time, they are inviting schools to help with the search.
“The whole history of Apollo is remarkable and include some of the most inspiring scientific and explorative missions in history” said Howes. “After the success of our recent asteroid detection project, where we regularly discovered extremely faint, fast-moving objects, we were considering what we could do next” he continued.
This new and exciting challenge was just what Howes, a long time fan of the Apollo missions, was looking for.  “After the fantastic coverage work experience student Hannah Blyth gained in helping us find over 25 new asteroids we thought this would be an
exciting way to engage schools again” he said.
With several other Apollo stages still out there, the team will not only be trying to locate Snoopy, but will be working with various experts in attempts to recover these too.
Comprehensive surveys looking for Near Earth Object (asteroids that come within about 3 million miles of Earth) have previously failed to find Snoopy, but the team are encouraged by their success in finding so many small, faint asteroids recently. But the team is under no illusions about the daunting complexity of this challenge.
“To say it’s like finding a needle in a haystack is doing a disservice to the haystack. Whilst there are records of the last known movements and orbital information for Snoopy, this is going back over 40 years. The module has been affected by the gravity of the Sun, Earth and Moon for all that time, and all sorts of other factors mean we need to search a very big chunk of sky for this thing” said Dr. Paul Roche, head of astronomy at Glamorgan University, “But, to paraphrase President Kennedy, we are trying these things ‘not because
they are easy but because they are hard’ – this will be a real test for the hardware and the students involved”.
The project, which is enlisting help from multiple UK schools, will attempt to post regular coordinate data which the teams will then examine on a daily basis. “There will be a huge search field to examine, so this is not something which will happen overnight. It could take weeks, months, years - or we may possibly never find it. But we’re going to try, and as a bonus, the areas we’ll be searching will hopefully throw up new asteroids, so there will be useful results whether we find Snoopy or not” commented Dr. Sarah Roberts, Education Director of the Faulkes Telescope Project at Glamorgan.
“Getting students involved in analyzing real scientific data, and looking for moving objects in a field full of stars is good science” continues Dr Roche “and whilst many students start off using the Faulkes Telescopes to image “pretty” things like nebulas or galaxies, we are always trying to move them on to do more exciting projects, and this one will hopefully do that”.
After looking at records in the NASA archives which give the last known speed and direction of the module, the team know it will be moving very quickly, so even if they do find it, initially it will just be a moving blur on the sky. But they are encouraged by the re-discovery of the Apollo 12 third stage rocket, which was imaged in 2002.
The team are working with Mike Loucks of US-based “Space Exploration Engineering”. Mike worked to reconstruct the Apollo 13 trajectory in 2000 and specializes in cis-lunar mission analysis and design. Mike said, “When I first heard about this project I was very intrigued. I did similar work in 2003 to investigate the trajectory of an Apollo 12 Saturn V rocket stage.  Using the techniques from both of those cases, along with some advanced trajectory tools we use to fly real lunar missions; hopefully we can narrow down the search areas to something manageable and give the team a fighting chance of finding Snoopy.”
“Whilst there is every chance we won’t find it, it’s like the lottery - unless you play, you don’t win” says Howes - and with odds not far short of the lottery, this is a truly ambitious project. “We’re looking at this like SETI@Home, the search for radio signals from ET”, continued Howes, “The chances of finding anything in that are tiny, but millions of people tried. With our Snoopy project, we hope to involve hundreds of schools users, with the bonus of finding dozens of new asteroids and maybe some comets in our search areas means
we’ll be doing great science at the same time”.