Happy December solstice, everyone! Today marks an extreme in our year here on Earth: the longest day in the southern hemisphere, and the longest night up here in the north, traditionally marked as the first day of winter. Even though there’s a lot of cold weather ahead of us, the days will start to get brighter from here on out.
It’s been quite a busy autumn for The Last Stargazers, which was recently announced as an Amazon Best Book of 2020 and as a finalist for the AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books! Both of these are great honors, but I’m particularly excited about the AAAS/Subaru Prize since it recognize science writing for young adults. I was a voracious reader as a kid and loved any book I could get my hands on about scientists and space, regardless of what age level it was aimed at, so it’s wonderful to see The Last Stargazers recognized by this great award for appealing to adult and YA readers alike!
It’s been beyond incredible to hear from so many readers, of all ages, who have been enjoying the book. Some found The Last Stargazers through these newsletters, others through lists like Amazon’s or my TED talk (where I tell the story of the incredibly-slow-speed chase that took place one night atop an observatory dome and periodically wave around a sheet of glass without breaking it! Check it out here or on TED’s YouTube channel), but regardless of how they found it it’s been great to see such a broad and enthusiastic audience enjoying the behind-the-scenes tales of astronomy and the adventures of how we study space. If you know a science enthusiast of any age who would enjoy this peek at the lives of professional astronomers, grab them a copy of The Last Stargazers today!
It’s been a busy season for space as well, with a few big stories you may have seen in the news. One featured two intrepid little space probes, Japan’s Hayabusa2 and NASA’s OSIRIS-REx, that both managed to plunk themselves down on asteroids and grab samples before taking off again and heading back towards Earth! OSIRIS-REx landed on the asteroid Bennu in October and is now on its way home, and Hayabusa2 arrived back at Earth just a couple weeks ago from the asteroid Ryugu, where it landed in 2018 and even explored the surface with several small rovers for more than a year.
It’s easy to think of astronomy as only being concerned with things that are countless lightyears away, so the idea of a spacecraft that can hop over to an asteroid, scoop up some rocks, and then come zipping home might sound like science fiction. Nevertheless, OSIRIS-REx and Hayabusa2 are just the latest two missions to bring back samples from some of our littlest neighbors! This type of science stretches back to 1999, when the Stardust mission (led by one of my University of Washington colleagues, Don Brownlee) flew close enough to a comet to actually collect some of the dust grains pouring off its surface before successfully returning to Earth. We astronomers rarely get to touch and poke at the things we study, so these precious samples are vital for answering our questions about the formation and future of our solar system.
OSIRIS-REx’s sampling arm hovering over Bennu’s surface during a “rehearsal” for the big landing. Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona
You can read about how astronomers study our own solar system – everything from chasing solar eclipses across the planet to flying telescopes into the stratosphere on board experimental aircraft – in The Last Stargazers. In addition, if you’d like to see more of the incredible discoveries astronomers have made in the past century of studying the cosmos, keep an eye out for a future newsletter – I’ll soon have some very exciting news to share about an upcoming project I’ve been working on with The Great Courses!
This fall sadly also brought heartbreak for the astronomy community with the loss of the iconic Arecibo Observatory. Arecibo was a world-famous radio telescope, with an enormous 1000-foot dish built into the natural landscape of Puerto Rico and a 900-ton instrument platform suspended 500 feet in the air. For decades it made unparalleled contributions to our study of the universe: it discovered the first planet around another star, mapped the surfaces of asteroids, and took some of the first observations proving that gravitational waves should exist!
Unfortunately, earlier this year Arecibo suffered structural damage when one of its auxiliary cables snapped, damaging both the instrument platform and the dish. In November, following more structural problems, the National Science Foundation announced that, due to structural and safety concerns, they would be decommissioning the telescope. Just a couple weeks later the instrument platform suffered a catastrophic and total collapse.
Fortunately nobody was hurt, but the loss of the telescope was met with an immense amount of heartbreak in the astronomy community. When I interviewed colleagues for The Last Stargazers, every person who had visited Arecibo had a story to tell about this incredible observatory, and the telescope was mourned by everyone from scientists who had worked with Arecibo for decades to young students from Puerto Rico who were inspired to pursue science careers thanks to growing up with this world-class facility. It was a one-of-a-kind observatory, with its own history and stories; many of us are hopeful that rebuilding a new facility will be possible, but we’ll all still miss this amazing telescope.
A beautiful machine. Credit: sharkhats
Finally, if you take advantage of the northern hemisphere’s longest stargazing night of the year tonight you can spot one final astronomical event of 2020. Look towards the southwest horizon about an hour after sunset to spot the “Great Conjunction” of Jupiter and Saturn: due to a lucky happenstance of their orbits, the two planets will have their closest encounter in our sky in almost 400 years, appearing less than a tenth of a degree apart (that’s as small as the width of a dime held at arm’s length!) You’ll be able to see the two planets with the naked eye, and if you have a backyard telescope or even a pair of binoculars tonight would be the perfect time to take them for a spin!
A guide for spotting Jupiter and Saturn together in tonight’s night sky. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
It’s a tough time of year for many of us who are, for personal and public health and safety reasons, staying in our own orbits and missing out on our usual gatherings of family and friends, but this is something you can share with loved ones all over the globe. Wherever you may be stargazing from tonight, you’ll all be looking at these same planets and this same rare moment of togetherness in the night sky. It’s a poignant way to mark the darkest point of the year and the start of our journey towards sunnier days.