2004 What a year in astronomy

If you are interested in exploring deep space, looking for new worlds or just viewing interesting sky events, then 2004 was quite the year for you. It was actually quite a year for many astronomers and amateurs alike.

Mars was visited by two rovers; Saturn now has a man-made satellite around it; we visited a comet; Venus moved in front of the Sun; there were new discoveries of planets far away; and a new icy body was found orbiting our Sun farther out than we had ever believed. And we had even more stories about the Hubble Space Telescope.

What a great year for astronomy. Many astronomers and editors alike have made their top 10 lists of the most significant stories of the year. So I thought I would do the same.

No. 10

Give up on Hubble

The Hubble Space telescope was launched into orbit in 1990, and has had four upgrades via the shuttle flights. But after the Columbia disaster in 2003, NASA has decided another servicing mission would be too risky. The telescope will fail by the year 2009 without already-made replacement parts.

After quite an uproar, NASA has come up with plan “B.” And that is to endorse a robotic mission to save Hubble. Even with plan “B,” it precludes any later manned mission, and that would surely cause an early end to the telescope. Stay tuned.

No. 9:

The Genesis Spacecraft

The Genesis Spacecraft’s mission was to collect particles of the Sun and return them to the U.S. Army Proving Ground in Dugway, Utah. After more than two years on it’s mission, it was suppose to land softly just south of Salt Lake City in September. But unfortunately the capsule hit the desert at 193 mph.

Not all was lost – after finding three undamaged samples that were delivered to Houston, scientists are very optimistic about what they have to work with.

No. 8:

Stardust Mission

The Stardust Mission is to return dust samples from the Comet know as 81P/Wild 2. The space craft gathered some 72 images on Jan.. 2, 2004, when it passed only 146 miles from the comet.

The images show pinnacles 330 feet tall and craters more than 490 feet deep. Stardust captured dust particles ranging in size from 1/80 the size of a human hair to about 100 times larger than that.

On Jan.. 15, 2006, the capsule will land by parachute at the same landing site where Genesis slammed down. (Hopefully somewhat softer)

No. 7:

My Astronomy Shed

My astronomy shed was almost completed as of the writing of this column. Only 8 feet by 14 feet, it will conveniently hold all my astronomy stuff in one location just outside my observatory.

Now I know just what you are thinking: how can this guy compare his feeble shed to the other nine top 10 happenings for the year? Well, I hear you.

But you must understand two things. One is “it is my shed, and it means a lot to me.” And the second thing is “this is my column.”

No. 6:

Hubble’s Deep Field Exposure

On March 8, astronomers unveiled a million-second-long exposure of a tiny patch of sky taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.

The image reveals the first galaxies to emerge from the so-called Dark Ages, just a stone’s throw from the Big Bang.

The image lets you study galaxies that existed between 400 and 800 million years after the Big Bang.

Just looking at this picture makes you feel somewhat insignificant, or at least it should.

No. 5:

Exoplanets

Exoplanets are planets found out side of our own solar system. Of the exoplanets found in 2004, most significant were the exo-Neptunes, far smaller than had been found in the past.

Some 135 exoplanets have been identified to date, but all have been the Neptune or larger type. The goal of finding planets like our own Earth around stars like our Sun has yet to be found, but the exo-Neptunes bring us one step closer.

One star has been discovered to have four planets circling it, making it the first four-planet system identified so far.

No. 4:

Cassini to Saturn

After watching a special recently on what it took to accomplish this project, I moved it up from No. 7 on my list. After a four-year tour, Cassini went into orbit around Saturn on June 30.

The information you have seen up to now is just the tip of the iceberg. These early results include never-before-seen details of Saturn’s rings, its moon Phoebe and the long-anticipated probe to the moon Titan, which will land on Jan.. 14. Can’t wait to see what comes next.

No. 3:

Transit of Venus

Up until June 8, no one alive today had ever seen our sister planet transit, or cross in front of, the Sun. It was a sight unseen for some 122 years.

Lucky for us, the transit was visible on television, because it could not be seen in our part of the world.

Skywatchers in Asia, Australia and on Pacific islands were the first to see Venus nudge its way onto the Sun, and observers in the Midwestern United States were among the last to see it leave.

Maybe not as striking as a total eclipse of the Sun, but the fact that it hasn’t happened for such a long time makes it somewhat special.

No. 2:

The Discovery of Sedna

Astronomers are constantly searching the heavens for new and interesting bodies, or whatever might come across their telescopic view that hasn’t been seen before.

Well, last March, astronomers were exploring the cold, dark outer solar system and found something that was unexpected. Something so far out that, as far as they where concerned, should not even be out there. But there it was, the farthest known object in our solar system, now called Sedna. Even at its closest, Sedna lies 76 times farther from the Sun than Earth. Taking more than 10,500 years to orbit the Sun, Sedna can reach as far out from the Sun as 480 times that of the Earth.

The reason for Sedna’s unusual orbit could have been a passing star that was able to emplace Sedna and change it from a circular orbit, such as the Earth’s, to what it is today. Just wondering what else is out there that shouldn’t be?

No. 1

Rovers Invade Mars

This just has to be one (I should say two) of the most aggressive projects man has ever accomplished. Getting it ready for launch here on Earth is one thing, but sending it off to a small location in the solar system and having it land, and then having the audacity to do field geology on two opposite side of Mars and reporting back to us, is just simply amazing.

At this time both “Spirit” and “Opportunity” are still at it, traipsing all over the red planet, sending unbelievable pictures and information back to us.

I’m not sure what it cost, but I’m sure willing to pay for my share. As a matter of fact, I’m even willing to go there myself, if they need me. I would want some sort of guarantee on the coming back part, though. Happy New Year, and clear skies.

David Baumgartner is in local real estate and is an avid amateur astronomer. His Sky Watch column appears monthly.

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