Thursday, November 25, 2010
A Night at the RASC
UPDATE: PDF of the Talk Slides are available here!
Last night I had the opportunity to give a guest lecture at the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada's Annual General Meeting in Toronto at the Ontario Science Centre. For 45 minutes (and then some with questions!), we talked about the exploration of our solar system by robotic spacecraft over the last 50 years. In my talk I made some comparisons to the earlier era of maritime discovery which lasted from the mid 1400s up until the early 1700s. Later, in lieu of the upcoming Planetary Decadal Survey, to be released in March of 2011, I discussed some of the big questions that we're on the verge of answering and what exploration by spacecraft might look like in the next 50 years.
Regular readers of this column will know that I feel that these kinds of presentations are an important service for those of us lucky enough to be in my line of work, despite what some of my colleagues might say. But beyond that, I also had a great deal of fun, both with the presentation and also answering questions from the audience afterwards and well into the break. It is always a joy to present to such a well-informed and interested crowd, and many of the questions asked were full of uncommon insight.
And, of course, it's always a good night when you get the chance to quote some 17th century Andrew Marvel poetry (the poem in question was "To His Coy Mistress") and Carl Sagan!
Unfortunately, prior to the talk, there was a bit of a mix-up with my picture/bio/abstract getting replaced with my twitter profile over on the RASC's website. As such, some of the audience members may not have been aware that this opportunity was, for me, a bit like coming full circle. Part of the RASC's mission is to educate and inspire people both young and old alike, to get them interested in astronomy and space exploration. At meetings and universities across the country, RASC members work tirelessly to carry out this work, whether it is showing people the wonder of the night sky at public star parties or running workshops on how to build your own telescopes.
For myself, it was a continuing education course offered by Memorial University of Newfoundland, taught and administered by the RASC's St. John's chapter which initially sparked my interest in astronomy back in 1997/1998. While I had been an avid reader of science fiction from an early age, an encounter with a department store Bushnell telescope had left me jaded with observational astronomy. The RASC's course gave me the tools to overcome that limitation and set me on the path that resulted in my PhD in Planetary Science ten years later.
As I left the auditorium last night before the AGM's voting began, I could hear a speaker in the room giving a speech to the membership. He was extolling the virtues of getting out in the community to show children the wonders of the skies, to sow the seeds of future astronomers, as it were. I don't know if the speaker realized it, but I'm proud to say that I was one of those seeds, and I'm delighted to have been able to come back and share all that I've seen along the way as I have grown.
So thanks again to the RASC for having me! If ever you'd like me to come back to speak again, I would be more than happy to do so!
Author's Note: To those who wanted to get a copy of my presentation, I'll post a link here when it is available.
Also, some quick updates on some of the answers I gave last night:
(1) To the questioner who was asking about a light in the sky in midsummer towards the east, you are correct in that it could very well have been Jupiter. From Toronto's perspective, it would have risen almost due east around 11PM and, with the exception of the Moon, would be by far and away the brightest object in the sky with a magnitude of -2.27. (You can check this for yourself using Stellarium)
(2) For those interested in the Pioneer-10 velocity anomaly, more data can be found here. It's an active area of interest, with a new paper published this year and a whole conference dedicated to trying to find solutions in 2004. However, I should note that the answer I gave was a little simplistic, and that the anomaly persists even after the perturbing effect from other bodies in the galaxy are taken into account. From a gravitational point of view, what matters most is the size of the sun's hill sphere (that is the sphere of space where the sun dominates). With respect to galactic centre, this works out to be about 130,000 A.U., and with respect to alpha centauri, something like 150,000 A.U. Since the Pioneers, when last measured were within 100 A.U. of the sun, they are still firmly within its sphere of influence.