Sunday, March 17, 2024

From Ann Arbor to Asteroids

ANN ARBOR (c. 1984) I settle into booth in the recently opened food court area in the basement of the Michigan Union to work on a Physics 401 problem set. It's early afternoon, and I am fueled by a slice and a soda—sorry, pizza and a pop (this is Michigan!). The fellow undergrad preparing the square pizzas at Parcheezi is Phil Plait. And $2.85 was all you needed for that lunch. 

Later that evening, I visit my neighbor at the Mary Markley dorm to finish the 401 problem set. He's a year younger than me, and super brilliant. His name is Dan Durda and, like me, he can be found in the audience at the monthly AstroFest presentations produced by Jim Loudon. We attended those gatherings religiously!

SACRAMENTO (c. 1996) I'm a fan of Homicide: Life on the Street (predecessor to HBO's The Wire). The guy playing drug kingpin Luther Mahoney is Erik Todd Dellums. Many actors relish playing the bad guy, and Dellums is clearly eating up this role.

(2015) I've been asked to introduce Michio Kaku at the Sacramento Speakers Series. It's a rare non-wedding, non-funeral occasion for which I am willing to dress up. I do my best to hype him up for the large auditorium crowd.

BOZEMAN, 2024. I'm writing a question set to accompany Asteroids: Worlds that Never Were, an episode of How the Universe Works. The episode is narrated by Erik Todd Dellums. It features astronomy experts Dan Durda, Phil Plait, as well as physicist Michio Kaku.

From icy worlds with more fresh water than Earth to flying mountains of pure metal, asteroids shaped our past and promise much for the future. Could these enigmatic space rocks hold the key to how life in the Universe arises and is extinguished?

Comets: To Catch a Frozen Wanderer

In 1996 and 1997, comets had quite a moment. Comet Hyakutake and Comet Hale-Bopp garnered attention worldwide. Some people used the passage of Hale-Bopp for nefarious purposes that ended tragically.

I recall Hale-Bopp being much more celebrated, but Hyakutake being much more beautiful in the sky.

In any case, comets can burst onto the scene with little notice. What are they all about? We begin with an episode from How the Universe Works. Comets: Frozen Wanderers provides a nice, comprehensive lesson on the nature of comets. It holds out hope that ESA's Rosetta/Philae mission will be able to get up close and personal with a comet.

PBS's To Catch a Comet picks up the story from there, providing a moment-by-moment account of Rosetta's rendezvous with Comet 67P. A great story with challenges and nail-biting moments.

As always, I have questions.

We follow the odyssey of a comet as it sails through space, watching every move as it evolves from a chunk of ice and rock into an active nucleus engulfed in a gaseous haze. What we learn is a revelation; comets are even more mysterious than we imagined.

On November 11, 2014, billions of kilometers from Earth, a spacecraft orbiter and lander did what no other had dared to attempt: land on the volatile surface of a comet as it zooms around the sun at 67,000 km/hr.