Most Tucson amateur astronomers know what happens on the first Friday of the month – the monthly meeting of the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association (TAAA)! Arguably living in the astronomy capital of the world, we have some pretty good meetings. With the Kitt Peak National Observatory, the Planetary Sciences Institute, Steward Observatory and the Lunar and Planetary Lab all headquartered in central Tucson, we are rarely lacking for world-class lectures about the universe or latest data from spacecraft. We even get great lectures from TAAA members themselves, some of them working at the above institutions!
Last night was the first Friday, so of course, we got together, but our normal lecture hall at Steward Observatory was being used for final exams – it is that time of year! So we arranged to meet across the street at the auditorium of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. The location fell into the theme of the evening – celebrating the history of LPL. The traditional Beginner’s Lecture was a showing of the great documentary “Desert Moon”, a 2014 movie by Jason Davis. Using archival footage as well as interviews with early employees, it tells the story of how LPL played a central role in the space race and eventual landing on the Moon. Gerard Kuiper, who founded LPL in 1960 is at center in the right image, and Ewen Whitaker, one of the main interviewees, is at right.
The movie is a testament to Kuiper’s leadership and assembling this team around him, most just barely out of their teens! They played central roles as Kennedy surprised scientists by declaring the Moon as a goal for NASA. Starting with the lunar atlas Kuiper started at Yerkes Observatory, after founding LPL they supported virtually all the lunar missions leading up to the landing. Fortunately, the movie Desert Moon is free for viewing on-line, and at 35 minutes long, is a great watch, even on a computer screen. My favorite scene is the un-narrated final scene when some of the now “old-timers” who played such central roles, put their swagger on and strutted down the University Mall – shown at left!
The main meeting started promptly at 7:30, and after a few announcements and business (Springtime Board Elections!) the main lecture started – given by LPL director Timothy Swindle. He admitted that the first half dozen slides of his normal talk were well covered by “Desert Moon”, so modified his presentation somewhat. He also announced that much of what he presented was covered in a recent book, recently published by UA press – Under Desert Skies by Melissa Sevigny. Reading her book would likely be a great addition to the information gleaned from Dr. Swindle’s presentation.
Dr. Swindle points to the launch of Sputnik in the 50s, and the 6 week period in Spring of ’61 in forming the direction of LPL’s mission to the Moon and beyond. So the developing space race kept funding levels high and the department focused both on the Moon and a fledgling planetary space program. After the successes in the Moon landings, UA continued involvement in the Pioneer, Voyager, Cassini and Mars missions.
He told the story of Lujendra Ojha, an undergraduate from Nepal working on a student project with data from HiRISE, under the direction of principle investigator Alfred McEwen, and discovered “streaks” on the inner walls of craters and gorges that follow up spectroscopy showed was briny water – one of the first direct indicators of water on Mars.
He also told the story of Richard Kowalski. One of the primary research works of Steward and LPL consists of searching for Near-Earth Asteroids with the Spacewatch and Catalina Sky Surveys. Kowalski is the ONLY observer to discover objects BEFORE they struck the Earth, one exploding over Sudan, the other striking the Atlantic Ocean. He is shown at right holding a small piece of the asteroid/meteor that landed over Sudan.
He closed out his talk with the latest mission coming out of LPL – the OSIRIS-REx mapping and sample return mission to an asteroid. Facing a launch this September, it arrives at Bennu in 2018, and returning with its precious cargo in 2023. Answering questions for a good long time, it was a great talk and enjoyed by all.
After the meeting’s conclusion, most stayed to interact outside the auditorium over snacks. Another great meeting! The next one will be the day before the Grand Canyon Star Party starts the first weekend of June!