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February 2019: Try turning it off and on again!

February 2019

Try turning it off and on again. In the show this time, we talk to Katie Mack about Dark matter, academic globetrotting and science communication, George Bendo rounds up the latest news, and we find out what we can see in the February night sky from Ian Morison, Haritana Mogosanu and Samuel Leske.

The News

This month in the news: the United States government shutdown and Wide Field Camera 3 on the Hubble Space Telescope.

First, the United States government shutdown, which ran from the 22nd of December to the 25th of January, had an averse effect on astronomy and space science as well as other activities related to space exploration. Like employees at many other government agencies, 95% of NASA employees were furloughed, or put on leave without being paid, when the government shut down in December. Some other research organizations, like the National Optical Astronomy Observatory and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, were able to continue opearitng on financial reserves, but other astronomy-related or space-related government organizations, like the Federal Aviation Administration and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, also furloughed many of their employees.

Not all NASA employees were furloughed. Employees responsible for tracking or operating spacecraft, including the International Space Station and New Horizons, were exempt from the furlough(pdf link), but this meant that they needed to work without pay instead. Additionally, Jet Propulsion Laboratory was able to continue operating during the shutdown because of the nature of how it receives funding from the United States government.

Nonetheless, some NASA activities were affected by the shutdown. Many NASA scientists could not attend meetings like the American Astronomical Society meeting at the beginning of January, and the shutdown forced the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, an infrared telescope that operates from a specially designed Boeing 747, to stop flying. The government shutdown also had a notable effect on private companies. Exos Aerospace needed to delay launch of a rocket because they could not access weather data from the NOAA, and other aerospace companies have encountered delays because they could not get appropriate approval from government agencies. Moreover, the shutdown had a major disruptive effect on people's individual lives as well, as NASA employees, like many other government employees, struggled financially without their monthly paychecks.

At this point in time, the United States government is funded until the 15th of February, although many American politicians from both the Republican and Democratic parties are working to keep the government open past this date and to avoid government shutdowns in the future. Nonetheless, it is not clear whether NASA and other space and astronomy organizations should prepare for additional disruptions in the future.

Also in the news, Wide Field Camera 3 on the Hubble Space Telescope temporarily ceased operations as a safety precaution on the 8th of January because of a technical fault. Wide Field Camera 3 is one of four active instruments on the telescope, and the instrument had been operational since being installed during a servicing mission in 2009. The timing of this event was particularly bad, as it occurred during the United States government shutdown and as many employees at the Goddard Space Flight Center, which operates the telescope, were furloughed. Fortunately, it was determined that there was a problem with the electronics that could be fixed by resetting the circuits. The instrument was operational again on the 15th of January and able to perform science observations on the 17th of January.

Extended Interview with Katherine Mack

This month, Emma Alexander interviews Dr Katherine ("AstroKatie") Mack (North Carolina State University) who talks to us about her work in theoretical cosmology, and how she conects astrophysics to particle physics to study dark matter. We also discuss her work in science communication, from writing magazine articles to tweeting a quarter of a million followers.

The Night Sky

Northern Hemisphere

Ian Morison tells us what we can see in the northern hemisphere's night sky during February 2019.

The Planets

Odds and Ends

Fast radio bursts (FRBs) are one of the big mysteries in radio astronomy right now. This episode we talk about the brand new CHIME (Canadian HI Mapping Experiment) telescope detections of 13 new FRBs, including only the second ever repeating FRB.

The Moon treated us to a spectacular total lunar eclipse last month (not that we'd know, we live in Manchester where it's perpetually cloudy). We discuss a meteoroid impact that was observed as a short, bright flash on the lunar surface (video) just before totality. A second impact may have been observed 2 minutes later, but hasn't been confirmed. Did you catch the eclipse, or take any photos? We'd love to see them!

In the December Extra, we discussed the Chang'e 4 lunar lander and its plans to see if seeds could grow on the Moon in a closed environment. A number of cotton seeds were seen to have sprouted on the 7th of January, but by the 13th - as temperatures dropped to -52degreesC during the lunar night - all of the sprouts, along with the remaining seeds and fruit fly eggs, have frozen and died. As the module had no battery and ran solely on solar power, the heating systems couldn't maintain a temperature that could keep these plants alive. Despite only lasting a little over 200 hours, however, the successful germination of the cotton seeds means that this experiment still managed to collect some data that may help with future endeavours towards growing plants in space.

In other recent news, a number of experiments have recently been published that explore the development of plants with the hopes of allowing long-term growth in microgravity. In addition to Chang'e, a number of plants have been grown on the ISS, providing a small quantity of food, but there are several problems with long-term farming in space.

A significant one is the low gravity - without any idea which way they're orientated, seeds can sprout roots in the wrong direction, which is normally corrected on Earth. This can be countered by either carefully planting the seeds so that the roots will be pointing downwards, or growing the plants in a centrifuge, artificially providing gravity. A second is the ability to provide water, as water collects on the surface of soil in microgravity instead of soaking in. Using hydroponics was one of the things investigated in these experiments - instead of using soil, the plants are grown in a water-soluble nutrient solution. Solutions with different quantities of nutrients were trialled to find whether the growth of their test plants - lettuce, chosen for being fast-growing - would suffer. In time, these experiments should hopefully let long-term space missions grow their own plants during the journey, providing a psychological boost from having greenery around them as well as some home-grown food.

Show Credits

News:George Bendo
Interview:Katherine Mack and Emma Alexander
Night sky:Ian Morison and Haritina Mogosanu and Samuel Leske
Presenters:Emma Alexander, Laura Driessen, Fiona Porter
Editors:Beth Jones, George Bendo,Tiaan Bezuidenhout and Tom Scragg
Segment Voice:Tess Jaffe
Website:Michael Wright, Naomi Asabre Frimpong and Stuart Lowe
Producer:Michael Wright and Naomi Asabre Frimpong
Cover art:The Hubble Space Telescope in orbit. (NASA photo) CREDIT: NASA

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