Santa Cruz Good Times

Friday
Nov 28th
Text size
  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size

Star Gazing

news2Cabrillo astronomy professor helps land Hayabusa spacecraft
Richard Nolthenius’ love affair with the night sky began when he was a child. “The sky doesn’t try to impress you,” he remembers realizing at age 10. “It doesn’t try to posture to be this, that or the other. It’s just so natural and so unaffected by us—and pure in some way.”

That year, 1963, a solar eclipse would solidify his dedication to studying the mysteries of the heavens. “There was a solar eclipse and they predicted exactly what it would look like when it was still two weeks in the future,” Nolthenius recalls. “I saw the eclipse and I said ‘Oh my God, it’s happening exactly the way they predicted.’ At the time, people were this chaotic, malevolent thing and I was hungering for something rational and understandable. And astronomy was also great because it was something I could do by myself at night since everyone else was asleep.”

Fast-forward to today: Nolthenius is a professor in Cabrillo College’s astronomy department, which he describes as a “one-man department.” He is also involved in the exciting Hayabusa space mission—an unmanned spacecraft mission led by Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The first mission since the moon in which astronomers hope to return samples, Hayabusa aimed to bring samples from the near-asteroid Itokawa back to Earth.

After traveling in space for seven years, the Hayabusa came home on June 13, welcomed by the whole team—including Nolthenius, who traveled to Australia last week to help bring it safely back.

But the work doesn’t stop with a safe landing: through the samples, the astronomers hope to answer some questions about the solar system—mainly about the nature and potentials of asteroids. Jupiter, which is two and a half times more massive than all the other planets put together, affects the orbits of planet-sized asteroids that form between Mars and Jupiter. Their orbits severely migrate, until some smash into each other, leaving behind fragments that are the asteroids we see today.

“And if that happened after the asteroids were large enough to actually become sort of micro planets, then you’d expect gravity would make the heavy stuff go to the middle and the light stuff would float to the top and so the pieces would have different chemical signatures that would reflect different places within the asteroid where they originated from,” says Nolthenius. “We only have indirect means of trying to decide what that stuff is, but by sampling different asteroids we hope to see better how that fractionation happens.”

Nolthenius’ team consists of Chief Scientist Dr. Peter Jenniskens of NASA, Professor Christopher Kitting of CSU East Bay, and Dr. Julie Bellerose. The team’s mission is to gather spectrophotometry data of the spacecraft’s reentry while it is in the upper atmosphere.

Photometry is the science of measuring precisely the amount of light that a star or a planet is giving off. Spectrophotometry is measuring precisely the amount of light, as well as its wavelength and color. When something hits the upper atmosphere, it causes the air to ionize, which is the process of an electron getting knocked off and then coming back in and bouncing down through the levels, giving off light each time. Essentially, the ionized air will emit energy that glows like a fluorescent light, which varies at different wavelengths. Certain wavelengths, such as oxygen at one line, are near infrared.

Nolthenius’ job will be particularly challenging. Tasked with doing a high-resolution spectroscopy, he will have to aim the lens not where the spacecraft is, but where it is going to be. “We want to get a record of the oxygen line—there will be a fair amount of oxygen ionization going on in the atmosphere,” he explains. “So I need to be able to point exactly 27.2 degrees away in the right direction from the spacecraft. My goal then is just to hold it and keep that centered as it moves across the sky and then just trust that the spectrum is showing up in the main camera.”

The job is the type of adventure his 10-year-old, star gazing self could have only dreamed of. “We’re going to be getting in a four-wheel drive vehicle and heading out into the [Australian] outback and we’ve got to be self-sustained and be able to take care of ourselves if things unexpected happen, and we’ve got to make sure our equipment works no matter what.

“It’s stressful,” he adds, “but it’s an adventure.”

Comments (3)Add Comment
Chair, Astronomy Dept. Cabrillo College
written by Rick Nolthenius, March 20, 2011
I've got a link up now to the poster presentation given at the Hypersonics Workshop covering the re-entry science of the Hyabusa Mission. Check it out here www.cabrillo.edu/~rnolthenius/hayabusa at the top of the page.
...
written by Rick Nolthenius, July 03, 2010
Thanks to all who have helped! You can follow the post-trip on the Cabrillo Astronomy website, where I've posted pictures and narrative to help show my students what fun it is being a scientist and all the adventure you can participate in.
http://www.cabrillo.edu/~rnolthenius/hayabusa/PostTrip/index.htm
Great Story
written by marko realmonte, June 20, 2010
Great story Good Times!! Rick is a true adventurer and an asset to Cabrillo and our community.

Write comment
smaller | bigger

busy
 

Share this on your social networks

Bookmark and Share

Share this

Bookmark and Share

 

Good Times Holiday Giving

Giving Where It Helps

 

Giving Thanks: The Thought-Form of Solution

We are in the time and under the influence of Sagittarius, sign of the wanderer, good food, good music, and the joy (Jupiter as ruler) that occurs from giving to others while simultaneously giving thanks from our hearts. Having the Thanksgiving holiday during the month of Sag is not a mistake. No other sign understands joy (an aspect of the Soul) as Sag (except Pisces when not in despair). “Sag is a beam of directed and focused light. The beam reveals a greater light ahead, illuminating the Way to the center of the Light,” emitting the Ray of Joyfulness. Thanksgiving is a time for gratitude; in the form of prayers, thoughts, feelings, wishes, hopes and greetings. Gratitude is something we still need to learn. Gratitude creates goodwill. Together, gratitude and goodwill create the “thought-form of solution” for humanity and our world’s problems. Gratitude and goodwill are the prerequisites for the reappearance of the Christ, the Aquarian World Teacher. In Ancient Wisdom texts it is written, “being grateful is the hallmark of one who is enlightened.” Gratitude comes from the Soul—the characteristics of which are love and wisdom (Ray 2). Gratitude is scientifically and occultly (mental, not emotional) a releasing agent. Gratitude liberates us and everything around us. Also a service to others, gratitude is deeply scientific in nature, releasing us from the past and laying open our future path leading to the new culture and civilization, the new laws and principles, the rising light of Aquarian, the Age of Friendship and Equality. The Hierarchy lays much emphasis upon gratitude. Let us be grateful this year and this season together. And so now the days of light illuminating the darkness begin (December’s festivals and feast days). Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. I am grateful for all of you, my readers.

 

The New Tech Nexus

Community leaders in science and technology unite to form web-based networking program

 

Film, Times & Events: Week of November 28

Santa Cruz area movie theaters >
Sign up for Good Times weekly newsletter
Get the latest news, events

RSS Feed Burner

 Subscribe in a reader

Latest Comments

 

Round About Now

The glory of persimmons, plus Ivéta scone mix and lunch at Assembly

 

What charities would you like to see people support this season?

Judy Allen, Scotts Valley, Consulting

 

Big Basin Vineyards

I was just in the process of purchasing a bottle of Big Basin’s 2012 Homestead in Vinocruz when Matt Ryan walked into the store. Ryan manages the tasting room, sales and the mailing list at Big Basin, and, considering the popularity of their wines, he’s a very busy man.

 

Ashby Confections

Local chocolate maker talks chocolate and self control