To Infinity, and beyond!
"All the atoms on Earth and in our bodies were in stardust before the solar system formed". This is a quote from NASA's audacious "Stardust Mission" 's principal investigator Donald Brownlee from the University of Washington. This mission was a major accomplishment for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge and Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver. It oversaw a spacecraft on its 2.88 billion-mile journey to snatch pieces of a speeding comet and bring them back to Earth. Above (left) you see a photo of this comet "Wild 2" (pronounced Vilt from the Swiss Scientist who discovered it). It will bring back about one milligram of comet dust from its "tails". (about one-thousandth of the weight of a paper clip) microns, thinner than a human hair. Launched Feb. 7, 1999, Stardust made two loops around the Sun before meeting up with with the comet between Mars and Jupiter in January 2004. There, a "tennis-racket-shaped" collector about the size of a desk, scoped up particles with the aide of "aerogel" a sticky sponge-like supstance. It then travel back to land in the Utah wilderness near Dugway hitting speeds of 28,860 mph. the fasted man-made re-entry ever. It could have particles with a similar chemistry/physics of those that "seeded" the Earth with some of its molecular building blocks of life. In 1979 there was a meteorite discovered in Australia containing "amino acids". So comets are like solar "libraries" that contain stored records of our formation. Stay tuned on what they might find in the next few months.
Leading astronomers are now beginning to believe that there may be a "tenth" planet way out beyond Pluto. Designated: 2003 UB313 (a code name) it was "discovered by Mike Brown, Chad Trujillo and David Rabinowitz, three astronomers working with one of the world's biggest telescopes at Palomar Observatory in California and a very sophisticated computer program to spot very slow-moving objects very far away. I heard they posted their "findings" on an internet site and someone else started taking credit for it...thus the code name. It had been 79 years since Clyde Tombaugh had discovered Pluto and named it after Percival Lowell (initials) an earlier giant in the field. Jay Leno said they should name it "Goofy". My suggestion: Edwin Hubble, who discovered other galaxies (among other things) E.H. "Extremely High Planetoid" No? See if you can do better. It is so far away, way past the Kuiper Belt and Pluto. Its distance to the Sun is 38 to 97 times that of the Earth (3.5 billion to 9 billion+ miles) It is larger than Pluto ie. 1500 to 2000 miles in diameter. Its year is 500 Earth years (trips around the Sun) ie. If Leonardo da Vinci lived there he would just now be celebrating his first birthday.
Dava Sobel's 3rd Best Seller is pictured above because, like her other two nonfiction/fiction books on "Longitude" and "Galileo's Daughter", I am thoroughly enjoying each chapter on a Solar Planet. She has the gift of making "very complicated" (boring non-fictiony) stuff come alive with human interest. They did a TV special on the guy who won the race/prize to "measure longitude" with a more accurate time piece that was "sea-worthy". Galileo's correspondence to his daughter, a nun, was very revealing yet so secretive. It had to be with what he was "thinking". In "Planets" she rightly predicted that future discoveries would be by collaborative efforts (see above E.H.) and not by lone geniuses. She left it open. She cofesses at the end of the book that none of the truly staggering data she had been priviledged to share had altered the planet's fundamental appeal to her as an... "assortment of magic beans or precious gems in a little private cabinet of wonder - portable, evocative, and swirled in beauty."
There was also a recent article in the USAToday about the "lumpiness" of the Milky Way. It postulates that "passing galaxies" (dwarf and otherwise) and "dark matter" might be causing the clumping and lop-sidedness. "It looks like the tipped brim of a fedora." I wonder who and when will discover discribe "dark matter" which is supposed to be 10 times heavier than normal matter. Is it like "anti-matter" which, as everyone knows, is what drove the "warp drives" of the Starship Enterprise. Ah, there is so much to think about; day-dream material all. And to think that we are all a very small part of it. Talk about feeling minute and infinitismal...and beyond! Bob