PostHeaderIcon Thanksgiving and Astronomy

Thanksgiving is upon us, here in the United States. By now your in-laws, friends, acquaintances, and family have probably learned that you think Astronomy is cool. Which means you’re the expert. Awesome!

Wait, did that worry you a bit? Being called an expert in astronomy? I sure get worried when I’m called an expert. So, just for you, an astronomy cheat sheet for Thanksgiving dinner-table conversation! So, if you want to steer the conversation away from politics and religion, here are a few ideas – in no particular order.

Topics You May Be Asked About

Water on the Moon

Question: So I hear they discovered water on the Moon! Or, what was that a couple weeks ago about NASA crashing something into the Moon?

Answer: Yup! There have actually been a couple of discoveries recently, but when NASA’s LCROSS mission slammed into a crater at the Moon’s south pole, it kicked up a cloud of material (which is what they were hoping for), and they discovered water and a lot of other interesting molecules in that cloud. Is it enough to use? Yeah, but we’d have to clean out those other chemicals first which might be difficult.

More info about Water on the Moon.


Question: I hear the world is going to end in 2012, what’s up with that?

Answer: No. The 2012 hoax is based on a bunch of misinformation and misinterpretations. The planets won’t be aligned, the poles won’t flip, and neutrinos from the Sun won’t boil the Earth’s interior. Intriguingly, we will have a solar maximum in 2013, so 2012 promises to have some nice sunspots, flares, prominences, and other Sun activity.

More info about 2012.


Question: These questions have a wide range: from “Is there life on Mars?” to “How are those Mars missions doing anyway?”

Answer: Yes, we’ve found water on Mars, though not a lot. We’ve found that water many times. The most recent surface expeditions to Mars were Phoenix (at one of the poles, currently probably under a layer of ice), Spirit and Opportunity (which both had rovers). Phoenix is now defunct, as there is no sunlight from which it can draw power. Even when the Martian winter recedes and the Sun shows up again in spring don’t expect Phoenix to turn back on. Spirit and Opportunity have been going for almost 6 years now – and their original mission was slated for 90 “sols” (days on Mars). Their 6-year anniversary is January of 2010. At this moment Spirit is stuck in a sand trap, and the NASA JPL techs are working hard to extricate her.

And no, we haven’t found life there yet and the chances are getting slimmer.

More info about water on Mars, life on Mars, Phoenix, and the rovers.

Hey, What’s That?

Question: Hey, what’s that?

Answer: Jupiter.

Well, it is possible that it is Sirius or Mars, but you’d have to be up fairly late with your family for that to be the answer. If you’re out for a post-dinner walk, and you notice something bright in the sky, it is probably Jupiter. To double-check yourself, Jupiter is low in the southwestern sky before sunset here in the United States.

More info on what’s in tonight’s sky.


Question: I hear they turned on that world-destroying black hole maker again.

Answer: Yup! I mean, no … it isn’t a world-destroying black hole maker, but they (CERN) did turn on the “LHC” (Large Hadron Supercollider) in Switzerland. They’ve turned it on, spun it up, and even gotten collisions of particles! Yay! Now, it will still be a bit until they discover that strange particle they’re looking for. And maybe a little longer until they prove that dark matter is real.

By the way, did you know that CERN stands for European Organization for Nuclear Research? How does that make sense? (Well, okay, I get the “RN” instead of “NR” part, but … I don’t get the “CE” instead of “EO”)

More info on CERN.

Topics You Might Like to Bring Up

Free Spirit

Pitch: We have a remote-control car stuck in a sand trap on Mars.

Details: Well, it’s actually a lot cooler, more difficult, and more emotionally wrought for many folks than just a remote control car and a sand trap. Spirit, one of our two rovers on Mars has gotten hung up in some soft soil. It has been trapped for weeks – the soil is softer than they expected, and there may be some loose rocks hidden by the sand which make plotting a course almost impossible. Every movement is like sinking into quicksand – it causes the rover to slip deeper into the soil. Also, there are some indents on the bottom of the rover that could easily get hung up on some sharp rocks underneath Spirit’s belly if the rover sinks too far. The rescue operation is continuing.

More information on Free Spirit.


Pitch: The only decent cheap telescope on the market.

Details: For the International Year of Astronomy a working group was put together to design a cheap, decent telescope kit, that any kid could use to see the rings of Saturn. This telescope is amazing for the price – and you get to learn how the optics work while putting it together. It also only takes about 10 minutes to assemble and no tools are required. This is a good beginner scope, but you should complement it with a tripod to get any use out of it at all. I highly recommend the give-one-get-one option, because they’ll send Galileoscopes to kids in underserved countries with these donations.

More information on the Galileoscope.

Shuttle Missions

Okay, watch out because this one could turn into a political conversation.

Pitch: There are only 5 shuttle missions left until the Space Shuttles are all retired.

Details: It’s about time we created a new ground-to-orbit technology. The Shuttles were launched in the 80’s (raise your hand if you’re still driving a car that was built in the 80’s. I thought so – not that many of you). Besides, if your clunker breaks down you’re stuck on the highway and you call AAA for a tow. If your shuttle breaks down … well, we’ve seen that twice and it is heartbreaking. I remember both vividly, and I’m actually just barely old enough to be able to remember the first one.

More info on the shuttle retirement, and the replacement.


Pitch: Yowsers watch out for those geysers!

Details: Cassini, which has been in orbit of Saturn for some years now, has just done a couple of screamingly-close flybys of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Why do you care? Because Enceladus is on the short list of places in our solar system we rate as likely for finding life. In fact, one scientist has ranked it as “more habitable” than Earth, based on a set of seemingly-reasonable characteristics.  You also care because, well, why are there geysers on this moon? What are they made of? What do they mean? We don’t know all those answers yet, but Cassini will help us figure it out.

More images from Enceladus.

My favorite (click and look closely at the dark side …):

One of Cassini's images of geysers on Enceladus.

One of Cassini's images of geysers on Enceladus.

I wish you a wonderful Thanksgiving, if you celebrate it, and a wonderful Thursday, Friday, and weekend if you don’t.

~ A l i c e !

5 Responses to “Thanksgiving and Astronomy”

  • Michael Bowers says:

    This post really saved my butt from boring Thanksgiving conversation! I talked about nearly all of these topics and threw in some nano regarding the space elevator for good measure. Thank you, Alice! Your astro info is top notch!

  • Bjoern says:

    The name “CERN” comes from the french “Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire” (source: Wikipedia); I’ve also heard elsewhere “Centre Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire”.

    • alicesastroinfo says:

      Thanks Bjoern!

      Another friend, Doug, agrees, saying “CERN was originally the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, which sounds way better than OERN”

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