President’s Message – January 2021
The catastrophic collapse of the Arecibo Radio Telescope seemed to me to be an apt metaphor for 2020. There is probably little appetite for most to review the events of the past year. Before we say good bye to 2020, however, it would be ungrateful not to mention a few astronomical highlights. The surprise visit of Comet Neowise provided a much needed boost during the first phase of Covid. Wildfire smoke dissipated enough for RASCals to savour the opposition of Mars in the Fall. The miracle of Zoom enabled RASCals to remain connected both locally and nationally and the proficiency gained will be a legacy that will change the way we conduct business going forward. But as vaccines arrive on the scene we look forward to a day when we can reduce our distance and party on.
So let’s look toward the future. There are plenty of space missions on the 2021 calendar but two in particular are guaranteed to generate high drama. The NASA Martian Rover Perserverance is scheduled to land on Mars on February 18th 2021. I am not keen on that rover name as it sounds to me like a brand name for a deodorant. Mind you the JPL team may require a good antiperspirant during the “7 minutes of terror” when the spacecraft executes a stunning array of complicated maneuvers. Even if it successfully sticks the landing like its superstar sibling, Curiosity, it is scheduled to perform another high wire act. Stowed on board is a helicopter, named Ingenuity that will attempt to automatically explore the near by surroundings in an atmosphere that is only one percent of that on Earth … equivalent to the density of air at 85000 feet. I will be on the edge of my seat with fingers crossed when they try to pull this off. Around the same time the United Arab Emirates will place an advanced weather satellite, called Hope, in a Martian orbit and the Chinese mission Tianwen-1 will deliver an orbiter, lander and rover to the red planet. It will be an exciting time!
There will also be plenty of suspense surrounding the launch and deployment of the James Webb Space Telescope. After more than a decade of delays, it is scheduled to launch on Halloween 2021. The elaborate multifaceted mirror has 6.5 times the collection area of its predecessor, the Hubble. It is designed to operate in the near infrared which will enable it to study distant red-shifted galaxies and the formation of exoplanets in debris disks. It is imperative that it operates in a very cold, stable thermal environment and a delicate multilayered sunshield is required. It was complications with the deployment of this sunshield that caused the latest delays. So even if the launch is successful, the unfolding of the mirror and sunshield will generate high drama. The Canadian Space Agency has made a significant contribution and so we also have a stake in this important mission.
There will be a great opportunity to review the progress of the Perserverance mission at our AGM that will take place via Zoom on Monday February 22nd. In addition to our annual report and elections we will also have a virtual award ceremony … and even more high drama. So there will be plenty of interesting things in the year ahead.
Wishing you a happy and healthy New Year … and oh yes …