Planetary Radio • Dec 18, 2019

Meet the Planetary Society’s Newest Asteroid Hunters

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On This Episode

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Russell Durkee

Astronomer and high school science teacher for The Shed of Science Observatory

20191216 Alessandro Nastasi

Alessandro Nastasi

Astronomer for GAL Hassin International Center for Astronomical Sciences

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Bruce Betts

Chief Scientist / LightSail Program Manager for The Planetary Society

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Mat Kaplan

Senior Communications Adviser and former Host of Planetary Radio for The Planetary Society

Six amateur astronomers and small observatories around the world have just been named as the recipients of the 2019 Eugene Shoemaker Near Earth Object grants. You’ll meet an Italian who watches the skies in Sicily and a Minnesota high school teacher who remotely operates a telescope in Texas. Chief scientist Bruce Betts will tell us why the Society has proudly awarded this funding for 22 years. He’ll return for this week’s What’s Up. We’ve also got space exploration headlines from The Downlink.

Russell Durkee
Russell Durkee Shoemaker NEO Grant recipient Russell Durkee.Image: Russell Durkee
Alessandro Nastasi
Alessandro Nastasi Shoemaker NEO Grant recipient Alessandro Nastasi.Image: Alessandro Nastasi
Osservatorio Astronomico della Montagna Pistoiese
Osservatorio Astronomico della Montagna Pistoiese Asteroid researchers at the Osservatorio Astronomico della Montagna Pistoiese in Italy received a 2019 Planetary Society Shoemaker NEO Grant. From left: Martina Maestripieri, Luciano Tesi, and Paolo Bacci (principal investigator).Image: Paolo Bacci
Višnjan Observatory
Višnjan Observatory 2019 and 2021 Planetary Society Shoemaker NEO Grants will help Višnjan Observatory in Croatia perform astrometric measurements of newly discovered near-Earth objects. The observatory also hosts educational visits by middle and high school students.Image: Višnjan Observatory

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Mat Kaplan: [00:00:00] They just wanna save the world. The Shoemaker NEO Grant winners, this week on Planetary Radio. Welcome, I'm Mat Kaplan, the Planetary Society with more of the human adventure across our solar system and beyond. Shoemaker NEO, as in Eugene Shoemaker Near-Earth Object Grants, the funding provided by the Planetary Society to amateur astronomers and small observatories all over our planet that are part of the effort to discover, track, and characterize asteroids and comets that cross Earth's orbit.

A new group of awardees has just been announced. We'll meet two of them after Bruce Betts provides an overview of the program. The universe never rests and neither does space exploration. So here are a few headlines from The Downlink, our weekly space news digest from Planetary Society, editorial director Jason Davis. NASA's [00:01:00] OSIRIS-REx mission has put a bullseye on Asteroid Bennu. The site chosen for collection of a surface sample is a 70 meter-wide crater, informally called Nightingale.

After a perilous descent, the spacecraft will begin its return to earth in February or March with the long awaited sample arriving in 2023. We'll see if we can get principal investigator Dante Lauretta back on the show before long. Move over, Bennu, scientists at the Jet Propulsion Lab say they've found a nice spot to land astronauts on Mars. They chose the Northern mid latitude region because it appears there is water ice and lots of it just centimeters below the surface, add energy and the newly arrived Martians will have air, rocket propellant, and something to water their potatoes with.

The Downlink always provides links to learn more about the stories mentioned. Here's one you really have to see. It's a video of NASA's test [00:02:00] of a liquid hydrogen tank for the space launch system. You'll watch as the gigantic cylinder ruptures explosively just as it was supposed to. Engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center subjected it to far more pressure than later tanks are expected to experience when the huge rocket finally lifts off. Everything is waiting for you at

One of planetary society chief scientist Bruce Betts, many responsibilities, is oversight of the Shoemaker NEO Grant Program. With six brand new grants just awarded, I asked our What's Up friend to remind us of why and how the society has offered this support for over 20 years.

Hey, Bruce. I don't know how many times we have done this on the show, s, several now, many over the years, but I'm happy to be talking to you again about this latest group of Shoemaker NEO Grant winners. Um, uh, give us an overview, maybe the Rays and Dettra [00:03:00] first, even though we didn't have any French winners this time.

Bruce Betts: [Laughs]. Yeah, we're really excited about the, uh, the new crop of winners and all the people throughout the program. We've been doing it for about 22 years. It's the Gene Shoemaker Near-Earth Object Grant Program or Shoemaker NEO Grants, and we award them mostly to advance amateur astronomers throughout the world to upgrade their facilities because amateurs with these amazing facilities such as the people you're talking with today are making real contributions protecting the earth from asteroid impact.

So even though in more recent years, professional surveys do the bulk of the discovery, there are still two really important areas where these advanced amateurs can contribute, particularly when they have advanced technology, which is what we're usually providing, and that is to do followup observations. So if you find an asteroid, doesn't do you any good if you don't know if it's gonna hit earth, and that requires lots of [00:04:00] individual observations over time to build up the orbit.

The other is asteroid characterization, so figuring out what its spin rate is, what it's made of, whether what looks like one asteroid is actually two asteroids. Little things like that-

Mat Kaplan: Hmm.

Bruce Betts: ... they will be critically important if and when we have to deflect one.

Mat Kaplan: How do these get picked? How do you, um, figure out who, who has won since we get more applications than we've got, uh, money to, to hand out?

Bruce Betts: No, no.

Mat Kaplan: [Laughs], I didn't think so.

Bruce Betts: Definitely not. A lot of great people put in a lot of time. So we've got uh, expert review panel that's put together by Tim Spahr, Dr. Tim Spahr, our Shoemaker NEO Grant coordinator, and he's on our board of advisors as well. Tim and the other asteroid experts go through the grants and then they make recommendations to me, basically rank them, and then I go in and figure out what we can afford and, uh, what fits that the [00:05:00] best, so then we pick winners.

Uh, this time there were 20 proposals, and a lot of them were really great. So unfortunately-

Mat Kaplan: Hmm.

Bruce Betts: ... we couldn't fund everything we wanted to. We did what we could and, uh, we've got about $60,000 in grants and, uh, some great winners, and we're looking forward to what they're gonna be doing with the money in the future.

Mat Kaplan: As you said, we're gonna meet a couple of these folks uh, in just a minute or so here. There are others who came from all over, uh, all over the world.

Bruce Betts: Indeed. So we've got a winner in Croatia, two in Italy, one in Brazil, uh, always helpful picking up the Southern Hemisphere to see that sky, and two in the United States. And throughout the history of the program, we've made awards to, uh, over 60 different awards to 19 different countries on six continents. We're still waiting for you Antarctica.

Mat Kaplan: [Laughs]. Yeah. All right, uh, let's, uh, go ahead and meet the first of these [00:06:00] two winners that we will talk to on today's show. It's, uh, Russell or Russ Durkee of the, uh, Shed of Science Observatory. He works out of, well, it's in the Minneapolis St. Paul area in Minnesota, though as you'll hear, his telescope is, is quite a ways away. He's also a high school science teacher, which will become obvious in the conversation. Bruce, thanks for giving us a nice intro to this and I'll, I'll talk to you again, uh, at the end of the show with What's Up.

Bruce Betts: Great, thanks. Enjoy your conversations.

Mat Kaplan: Russ, congratulations to you on, uh, the award of... I thought you'd only gotten one Shoemaker NEO Grant before, but you, you told me no, you got them in, we think it was 2009, and then again in 2010, and now you are a 2019 awardee. So, uh, indeed, congratulations.

Russ Durkee: Well, thank you.

Mat Kaplan: I wanna hear about the Shed of Science Observatory [laughs].

Russ Durkee: [Laughs].

Mat Kaplan: Uh, but, but tell us a little bit first about what this grant is going to do to, um, enhance your ability [00:07:00] to, uh, help us learn more about these, uh, objects, near-earth objects.

Russ Durkee: Yeah, sure. Um, the grant was written to purchase uh, a new camera for the observatory. I had received a grant back, I believe in 2010, for a, uh, a camera, and the planetary society was generous enough to fund that camera, and... but we're now almost 10 years later and the technology is advanced. What it allow me to do is make observations of much fainter objects to really do the, the kind of work that I wanna do, mostly identifying binary asteroid pairs.

Mat Kaplan: Yeah, I read that, that's one of your specialties. It really is amazing, isn't it? How fast these CCD cameras for, uh, astronomy advance?

Russ Durkee: Yeah, it's really changed the way, um, observations can be done by the general public. We see cameras all the time in our phones. You... what we don't appreciate is that astronomers are really taking [00:08:00] advantage of this. And then over the last 30 years, a lot of this technology is, has trickled down into the backyard astronomer, and even though they're making huge telescopes and doing amazing things with space telescopes and so on, smaller observatories like my own can take advantage of that technology and still contribute to, uh, the cutting edge science.

Mat Kaplan: Tell me about the work that you do. I mean, in, in a couple of minutes or when we're done talking, uh, I'll be, uh, talking with Alessandro Anastasia, another one of the grant awardees. His facility in Sicily mostly does astrometric observation, sort of tracking, you know, determining where these objects are going. You do photometry, which is, uh, equally important, but quite different, isn't it?

Russ Durkee: Yeah, it is. So while he's measuring the positions of the objects to determine their orbits, what I do is measure the brightness changes of the objects over time. And so, if you think about the, an asteroid as an elongated potato-shaped [00:09:00] object where... as it rotates through space, the long side of it will have a brighter image than the narrower side of it. And so, as it rotates through space, you can very carefully measure the brightness of these things and determine the rotation rate.

From that basic observation, you can do all kinds of interesting things. You can constrain the size of the object, you can estimate its density. Most of those things are estimates that need to be done if you can find of a binary object around it, but you can also estimate its size and estimate its distance and get some hints of, of some of those physical properties of these objects.

Mat Kaplan: You mentioned, uh, that you kind of specialize in the, the discovery of, or determining that some of these objects are not just single objects, that they are binary. Oh, and we should say by the way, that you're at school right now-

Russ Durkee: [Laughs].

Mat Kaplan: ... where you teach science. And so, we may hear some high school like sounds in the background as we did a moment ago there [laughs].

Russ Durkee: [00:10:00] Uh, yeah, I'm sure you will. And, I'm in a, I'm in a teaching office here that I share with, uh, half a dozen other science teachers, so they're not, not necessarily the most quiet people-

Mat Kaplan: [Laughs].

Russ Durkee: ... and we talk all day, and [inaudible 00:10:13], [laughs], we're used to sharing our opinions with kids. And so, um, it was, it was kinda hard to clear out the office here of, of my, my coworkers, but, uh, it's just fine. And so, don't be surprised if you hear some shenanigans in the background.

Mat Kaplan: [Laughs]. Well, tell them the p, tell them the Planetary Society admires them and says hello. [laughing].

Russ Durkee: Sure, I will. But, yeah, I, I teach high school. I'm lucky enough to teach nine through 12 students. I, I teach physical science, and I have an astronomy class, and I also teach a year-long research class. I'm actually using my observatory to assist some of my high school students to get introduced to photometry. And I have two students this year who are actually doing asteroid work with me.

Mat Kaplan: That's fantastic. So [00:11:00] they are helping you with your observations?

Russ Durkee: Yeah, exactly. And so, I give them a crash course in how to do the photometry and how to control the telescope. The telescope, by the way, isn't local, I mean, when I originally got my grant back in 2009, 2010, my observatory was actually located in the city of Minneapolis. With filtering and some really careful processing, I could still do some work with identifying binaries, but over time, the low light pollution just limited my ability to do that.

And so, this observatory is now in the middle of Texas. I still live in Minnesota, and so, my students and I are connecting to this thing remotely, and I, and I teach them how to do the photometry. We work with other people who are photometrists around the world to give them some experience working with professionals beyond the school. And, um, hopefully they'll compete in some science fairs and some [00:12:00] competitions this spring.

Mat Kaplan: Yeah. And I bet they'll do well if they do. Um, how often do you actually have to head down to Texas to physically be in the presence of this telescope?

Russ Durkee: Um, the good thing is that I get better skies down there and it's clear and everything. The unfortunate thing is when things go wrong, you really have to have somebody there that-

Mat Kaplan: Yeah.

Russ Durkee: ... can help you fix stuff. I mean, we have all the same problems that you might imagine with hard drives and, and dust, and just unforeseen circumstances. I've been going down there maybe every three or four months. It's not a bad trip for me to do that, it's a straight shot from Minnesota to Texas, and it's a couple hours drive once I get down there. It's been working out pretty well. When I do receive the camera, I'll have to make a trip down probably, um, sometime around spring break, more, more than likely and get ready for the, the summer season there.

Mat Kaplan: Back to binaries, uh, we are learning aren't we? That, that they're really [00:13:00] pretty common.

Russ Durkee: Yeah, it's surprising. You know, back when I started doing this work in 2004 or 2005, there was something like 20 binary asteroids known at the time. And the project that I'm working on is with Dr. [Pedocravits 00:13:15], out in the Czech Republic and he has a team of people all around the world that focus on objects every month. And I'm part of that US contingent that follows these objects.

What the group has discovered along with others is that there's something like 15% of asteroids-

Mat Kaplan: Hmm.

Russ Durkee: ... seem to have a companion, and these are large enough companions that you can see them using photometry. But if your listeners have been paying attention to the news, we, we've seen asteroids that are shedding much smaller objects. So chances are there's many, many smaller objects order, orbiting these asteroids that we just can't see from the ground.

Mat Kaplan: [00:14:00] And my assumption is that if we found an object headed toward us on a collision course, and one that we would need to worry about, we better know if it's on its own, or if it has a companion, or maybe even a couple.

Russ Durkee: Yeah, it complicates things a lot. If there are two objects heading our way, you know, that's, that's a problem. The other thing that this research does is it gives you an idea of the density of the system when you have that binary pair. So, for example, let's say you have a rock that's heading toward us and it's made of mostly iron, you probably are gonna treat it differently than if you know the binary pair is made of sand.

Mat Kaplan: Yeah.

Russ Durkee: So it really is sort of a, uh, very useful and practical research that needs to be done in the event something like that does happen. Well, you're gonna approach those two things completely differently.

Mat Kaplan: I wanna ask you about the community of astronomers, amateur and otherwise, who, who do this work. You [00:15:00] mentioned it briefly, but it really is kind of uh, a worldwide collaboration partnership, even a bit of a family.

Russ Durkee: Yeah, it is. The, the group that does this sort of work is, is not a large number of people around the world. I remember being at a conference many years ago and that question was asked, you know, “How many people are doing this sort of work?” And, and the response was something like, “Well, there's, there's hundreds in the world that are using their, their own money to fund this sort of work,” and there's, then there's university researchers as well that are doing this sort of work. There's probably thousands, but I don't think there's 10,000 of us.

They're small universities, they're small budgets, they're private individuals. And it seems like in this particular group that is working on the binaries, it's mostly private individuals and a couple of small universities, and we all know each other through email. Sometimes you meet in [00:16:00] conferences, but I have relationships with people that I've published papers with for many years. We've never met in person, we just have a, an online relationship. But still we email each other every clear night sometimes to, to agree who's gonna follow what object. So there's a, a real camaraderie there.

Mat Kaplan: Yeah. And with a wonderful goal because, you know, as I've, as I have said to every one of you, Shoemaker NEO Grant, uh, awardees over the years, you just might, as our boss, Bill Nye says, “Save the world someday.”

Russ Durkee: Well, I hope we don't have to, but we're-

Mat Kaplan: Hmm.

Russ Durkee: ... we're out there trying to do just that [laughs].

Mat Kaplan: [Laughs].

Russ Durkee: Um, you know, uh, a lot of us are doing this for the love of science. In my case, I also think it's important to mentor young people. You know, I'm just thrilled that the Planetary Society is supporting me in my work because I enjoy doing both.

Mat Kaplan: You are very welcome. And, of course, we are especially happy whenever one of our awardees has the opportunity to both do science and [00:17:00] interest young people and others in science. I, I got to tell you, I only wish that there had been a year-long sort of hands-on class in scientific research, uh, when I was in high school like the one that you teach.

Russ Durkee: Yeah, I am, I'm jealous of my kids every day to be honest [laughs].

Mat Kaplan: [Laughs].

Russ Durkee: Um, but it's an, an amazing opportunity for kids. I, I think that even though we're in this world where everything is getting so specialized, there are still areas of science and research where somebody with very modest skills can make a difference. And the skills that kids are learning by doing these sorts of projects are things that, that they can take with them into college and really be a standout scientist or student or whatever, because it's really just learning how to manage a project, how to tackle something you don't know it. And it's great that at least in astronomy, some of those projects are still within reach.

Mat Kaplan: Yeah, those skills just [00:18:00] might be useful even if they don't [crosstalk 00:18:02].

Russ Durkee: [Laughs]. Yeah [inaudible 00:18:03].

Mat Kaplan: [Laughs]. Thank you, Russ. Once again, congratulations. Keep up the great work. You've had terrific success so far, and hopefully, this new camera will, uh, take you even further. Good luck in the, in the hunt and, uh, clear skies.

Russ Durkee: Thank you very much, and thank you to all the members of the Planetary Society for their support. It really means a lot.

Mat Kaplan: That's Shoemaker NEO Grant awardee Russ Durkee. When we return, we'll jump from Minnesota to the Island of Sicily, where we'll meet another winner.

Bill Nye: Bill Nye, the planetary guy here. The planetary society has just begun its 40th trip around the sun. That's right, it was 40 years ago that our founders created our organization. Help us celebrate four decades of connecting people around the world with the passion, beauty, and joy of space exploration. A certain very much beloved donor will match our gifts up to a $100,000. Please make your gift today and see your impact doubled. Go to [00:19:00] Thank you indeed.

Mat Kaplan: Astronomer and data scientist Alessandro Nastasi returned to his birthplace not long ago. He joined Sabrina Masiero and Mario Di Martino in applying for a Shoemaker NEO Grant. They learned just days ago that their proposal was a winner. It was only a few hours later that Alessandro joined me for a celebratory Planetary Radio conversation.

Alessandro, congratulations to you and to your colleagues. They're at the, I hope I have this right, the Gal Hassin International Center for Astronomical Sciences in Sicily. Congratulations on being awarded this, uh, Shoemaker NEO Grant by the Planetary Society.

Alessandro N.: Thank you very much, Mat. Thank you very much. I'm very glad to be here and to be awarded of this price. The name is a bit, uh, difficult to pronounce, said you're right because it's a bit Arabic. The right pronunciation is Gal Hassin because Hassin is the former Arabic name of Isnello, which [00:20:00] is the little village where the center sits, and which means, uh, uh, called the creek. Uh, this is the region and then we put Gal to recall like galaxy, the sound of galaxy. That's, that's the reason.

Mat Kaplan: Yeah. I was gonna ask you what that, what that meant. That's already fascinating. It's a beautiful center, and it looks like-

Alessandro N.: [Laughs].

Mat Kaplan: ... it's uh, a very popular place for people to visit.

Alessandro N.: Well, it is. It's, It's very quiet, so far. Well, because the tourism is not that intense in this specific region, but, uh, we are half an hour from the sea, uh, half an hour from the mountain where there is possible to ski and, uh, we are in between in a very, very nice region, which area essentially, which is called The Madonie Regional Natural Park. I, it's a very nice area but especially it's a very dark area. So the light pollution here is very, very limited, that's why we are here.

Mat Kaplan: You've only been back in Sicily for a short time, [00:21:00] but you were born and raised there.

Alessandro N.: That's true, yes. I was born here in Sicily, but, uh, actually my, uh, education, uh, was done in Northern Italy in Bologna. And then I moved away, I moved abroad for, uh, let's say four years in Germany for my PhD in astronomy, in astrophysics and cosmology. It's quite exciting, eh, eh, having the chance to work in my home place in such a, a fantastic, uh, project.

Mat Kaplan: I hope that people will visit the website, and we'll put up the link to, uh, Gal Hassin on the, this week show page of Uh, it really is a beautiful facility, tell us what this grant will be able to do for you to, to enhance your ability to study near-earth objects.

Alessandro N.: This center actually is mainly focusing on the science outreach and education, so we work with the students and visitors. But we also have, our [00:22:00] facility, uh, it's a 40-centimeter Arisha Chretien telescope from Officina Stellare, which we use for, uh, essentially observing and doing research about uh, near-earth object for astromatic measurement. The problem is that this facility is in a terrace where all the other instruments, uh, all sits. So when we want to observe, we are forced to, to open the hanger and the entire, let's say, building uh, uh, and it is quite time demanding, let's say.

So with this grant, uh, we will be the new and independent Dorma a bit far away in an independent place, still within our center about in independent spots just for our telescope, which is called the GalaScene Robotic Telescopes, so GRT. In this way, we will be prompt already to observe the sky at, at night and also doing, for example, uh, the visitor section. So when we, uh, look at the [00:23:00] sky, up to the sky with visitors, because at the moment we can't, okay, we're forced to, to stop research during the visiting time.

In this way, with this new Dorma, we will be independent in this way. We will use this money also to, uh, synchronize the time and the clock of our PC, eh, with the GPS. In this way, we will have all this the right time and, uh, the, that, you know, it's critical for very fast asteroid. I could mention also the, the other telescope, maybe, the 1-meter telescope.

Mat Kaplan: Yeah, please do.

Alessandro N.: This is only the project for the near future, but actually next year, eight kilometers from the galaxy, we will build a new telescope. It will be, uh, a one-meter wide field, uh, telescope with F 2.1. So it's very, very fast, and it's a prime focus telescope. It's gonna be kind of a pioneeristic, uh, project because, uh, there [00:24:00] is no other facility like this in, uh, Mediterranean area.

And in fact, we will be the only telescope with such aperture and, and speed, let's say, in, in this region for mmm, long time. So we would use this money also to synchronize the PC of this, the controlling PC of this, uh, one-meter telescope so that we will have a two perfectly synchronized facility working in the same time and the synchronicity. So this is crucial to do, for example, parallax measurements or, or occultation events monitoring, huh.

Mat Kaplan: And you mentioned in passing that you tend to study objects that are moving very quickly across the sky because they're, they're quite close to us?

Alessandro N.: Yes, they, they are close to us and then they are even brighter. So, of course, with a 40-centimeter instruments, we can go deeper than 19.5 magnitude. Uh, still, we can monitor very well and very correctly, a fast and then bright objects. [00:25:00] Now, for this, we need to have a perfectly synchronized with the GPS time, and this money will help us to achieve this goal.

Mat Kaplan: 19.5 magnitude, that, that's quite a dim object. But as you said, you can, you can track much brighter ones as well.

Alessandro N.: Yeah.

Mat Kaplan: Have you had good success already even before implementing these new tools at the site as you've done this, uh, astrometric work to, to basically establish where these near-earth objects are going and, huh, and where they will be in the future and whether they will pose a threat to our planet?

Alessandro N.: That's true. We've been, we've been already quite success in this, uh, activity because so far we've come from exactly a 33 asteroids passing close to the earth. And, uh, we've been the first in Europe to follow up, uh, this object in, uh, one third uh, of cases. We manage to be quite fast in, uh, following up, the object [00:26:00] discovery for example, in a, by Catalina, sorry, for example, so we are quite proud of that. So it's a [laughs], it's a small facility but well used.

Mat Kaplan: Yeah. Tell me something before, before we go about your colleagues who are, I believe, Sabrina and Mario?

Alessandro N.: Correct. Sabrina Mascero is the director of the center, she's an astronomer and Mario DiMartino is another astronomer, eh, he is the, um, uh, the leader of the scientific committee of the GalaScene, and he's one of the maximum experts in Italy about asteroids, the studies and, the, the scientific committee is bigger. There are other big names in, in our committee and we work all together. Despite, we're not physically, let's say close, except Sabrina, which worked here in the same place.

Mat Kaplan: Longtime listeners to Planetary Radio probably, uh, kn, already know that Italy has been quite a center of, uh, of research, uh, on near-earth [00:27:00] objects. So there is very good work being done all over the country, and we can thank all of you for that because as our boss, Bill Nye says, “Who knows, you may just one day save the planet.”

Alessandro N.: [Laughs], who knows. Well, you, you're right. I would like to mention this, you know, that, uh, a series a, the, the first ever discovered asteroid actually was discovered in Palermo, actually 90 kilometers from the GalaScene here in Sicily. And uh, it was discovered by a priest, his name is, uh, Padre Jose de Piatti and in eh, 1801, and I could tell you the, now if priest eh, Piatti would be still alive, eh, would surely move his observative from Palermo to the Madonien Mountain because now Palermo-

Mat Kaplan: [Laughs].

Alessandro N.: ... is still light polluted [laughs], and, uh, we continued this work in this job, in this sense.

Mat Kaplan: That's quite a legacy, uh, [crosstalk 00:27:56], something that we're very proud of. Thank you, and, and please pass along our [00:28:00] gratitude to your colleagues there, uh, for the work they are doing. And I, I do very much hope someday that I can visit you there in the mountains of Sicily.

Alessandro N.: Yeah, no, we're looking for to see you here and to show you the facility that we actually is still growing, growing because actually we are still young center, let's say, less than three years old and we are still, uh, growing. But we want really to expand and, uh, let's say [laughs], look forward to, to new project, and your grant will really help us to, to do that. So, thanks, thank you again for this.

Mat Kaplan: You are very welcome, and thank you again for not just the work you are doing to, to track these, uh, objects that c, cross the path of our own world, uh, but also for the outreach work that you do, as you said, the educational work that takes place at the, uh, center. Uh, we'll look forward to, uh, hearing about how the grant and these new capabilities will [00:29:00] enhance your ability to, uh, track those near-earth objects. Thanks again, Alessandro.

Alessandro N.: Thank you, thank you, Mat. And we hope that with the new facility with a one-meter wide telescope, actually, we will not just to follow up near, but we will start to discover near, near because recall that we are eight hours ahead from U.S. in the night. So we start working-

Mat Kaplan: Whao.

Alessandro N.: ... at the, at eight hours ahead and we are also quite in the Southern, uh, of Europe, so we, uh, have access to the galactic center so we can study very, lots of interesting target.

Mat Kaplan: That's great. They've discovered so many at places like the Catalina Sky Survey. I'm sure they can spare a few discoveries for you there at [crosstalk 00:29:44].

Alessandro N.: Yeah, it's, uh, so that's insane [laughs]. We will do our best, of course [laughs].

Mat Kaplan: [Laughs]. And we are happy to help with the Planetary Society. Once again, clear skies and, uh, good hunting.

Alessandro N.: Thank you, thank you, Mat. Thank you to of you. Thank you very much.

Mat Kaplan: Alessandro Nastasi, he and his [00:30:00] colleagues at the Gal Hassin International Center for Astronomical Sciences have just been awarded one of six 2019 Shoemaker NEO Grants by the Planetary Society. Time for What's Up on Planetary Radio. So we return to uh, Bruce Betts, the chief scientist of the Planetary Society and, uh, I'll note that, uh, he's on vacation, and so, we've got [laughs]... we jury rigged a, an audio system here so that he's able to, uh, take a break from that vacation and join us on the show. Thanks for doing this.

Bruce Betts: Thank you, Mat. I wouldn't miss it.

Mat Kaplan: Especially with all this great, uh, Shoemaker NEO stuff, which, uh, [crosstalk 00:30:38]-

Bruce Betts: Oh, yeah.

Mat Kaplan: ... you head up, of course. Along with the, these, uh, grant winners, what can the rest of us see in the night sky?

Bruce Betts: [Laughs]. You can see Venus, Venus is just gonna dominate for the next few months in the early evening, low in the west, brightest star-like object out there. If you catch it in the next few days and look to its lower right, you might still [00:31:00] catch Saturn, but Saturn's running away rapidly. And in the morning sky, which is gonna keep getting more and more crowded, but right now it's Mars time. Mars looking reddish and fairly bright in the East and the pre-dawn.

To its upper right is the blueish star speaker. And if you had checked it out on the mornings of the 22nd or 23rd of December, you'll see the Crescent moon hanging out fairly close to Mars. And uh, you got a Ryan looking all beautiful coming up in the early evening, San, uh, winter is around the corner, well, for the Northern atmosphere. Onto this weekend's space history, it was this week in 1968 that Apollo eight launched towards the moon to do it's, uh, historic fly around the moon bit.

Mat Kaplan: Just amazing to me that we are now beyond 50 years from that momentous mission, uh, just amazing.

Bruce Betts: Well, we're less than two Saturnian years.

Mat Kaplan: [Laughs].

Bruce Betts: Don't even get me started on Uranus and Neptune.

Mat Kaplan: [00:32:00] Yeah, we'll talk about that more next week.

Bruce Betts: Onto [inaudible 00:32:03], space vac, oh, yeah.

Mat Kaplan: [Laughs].

Bruce Betts: Well, vacations spread space fact for you. Just that part, the next part isn't vacation, but it's cool. 50 of the Earth's moon, 55 zero could fit inside the earth, assuming you squished the moon so there is no void space.

Mat Kaplan: I love those shot. How many of these can you put in one of those? That's, that's a new one for me. Thank you.

Bruce Betts: You're welcome. I, I realized in all the years I, I had never done that, so it's, it was an exciting moment for me as well.

Mat Kaplan: There's more excitement in stores. We go to the contest.

Bruce Betts: There is indeed. I asked you what are the names of the first two modules connected to form the core of the International Space Station. How'd we do?

Mat Kaplan: I will let our poet Laureate de Fairchild provide the answer. Zarya was the first to fly in 1998. A proton rocket launched at HAI to be the [00:33:00] starting gate. Unity came next aboard, the shuttle was success. The two of them together form the core of ISS.

Bruce Betts: Oh. That's right.

Mat Kaplan: Our winner, and this is odd because he has been entering for, uh, over four years, and he frequently sends these great graphics, these, these illustrations that he has created. This time, he did not because I guess he's not feeling well, he wasn't up to it, but he didn't answer. It's, uh, Daniel in Germany, he goes by CPA. I, I don't know if it's CPR or CPA, it ends with a E, I should have asked him about that.

He finally, finally has won the contest after four years of attempts and a lot of great artwork. He indeed said it was Zarya and Unity. So, uh, congratulations, you're going to be getting that, uh, Planetary Radio t-shirt and a copy of Alcohol in Space by Chris Carberry that, uh, that fun book that traces the history of alcohol in space and also [00:34:00] it's, um, its future, which app, apparently is going to be fairly bright unless you have too much of it, and then it gets very dim. Uh-

Bruce Betts: [laughs].

Mat Kaplan: I got more, Michael Unger in Vancouver, uh, British Columbia, that is. He calculated the number of orbits Zarya has made of earth. By the time you read these answers, he says it will be close to 122,000. I thought that was low, but I checked it and I think he's right.

Bruce Betts: Sounds about right, based upon, um, other spacecraft that I track on a daily basis recreationally.

Mat Kaplan: [Laughs]. And good for you. Mark Little in London, Derry, Northern Ireland, if it wasn't in lower Thora that the ISS could take Daytrippers to the moon as it travels an equivalent distance of to the moon and back every 24 hours.

Bruce Betts: Oh, that's a good random space fact.

Mat Kaplan: Ain't it? Yeah, sorry, beat you to it. Uh, wait here, Nathan Hunter in Vancouver, Washington, the other Washington, excuse me [laughs], the [00:35:00] other Vancouver, researching this reminded me that there was not one but two proposed ISS modules that would have tested the use of centrifuges to simulate gravity. What's it gonna take to test this idea out? I dunno, Nathan [laughs]. Does seem like a good idea though, doesn't it?

Bruce Betts: Yeah.

Mat Kaplan: David Douthat in, uh, Charleston or Charles Town, West Virginia, a marriage made in heaven or an orbit to be precise, former rivals built a home in space where they could both play nice. Zarya marked the Dawn of the fledgling ISS, and with its partner Unity sealed the deal with a kiss [laughs].

Bruce Betts: [Laughs].

Mat Kaplan: Did we mention that Zarya means Dawn in Russian?

Bruce Betts: Mmm, I don't think so.

Mat Kaplan: Better late than never. Oh, one more I gotta mention from our regular Laura up in Eureka, California. 21 years of ISS and discussions of alcohol in space on your show because those both did come up on the same show. [00:36:00] Did we need to wait until the station was of age?

Bruce Betts: Daaaaaa!

Mat Kaplan: [Laughs]. Thanks, Laura. Thanks, everybody. Thank you for entering and, uh, being a part of this uh, every week, and we're ready for another one. Give them another opportunity.

Bruce Betts: It is time once again to play, Where in the solar system. Oh, well, oh boy, oh boy. [Laughs]. Yeah, I knew you'd be excited. So where in the solar system is the crater Fejokoo and-

Mat Kaplan: [Laughs].

Bruce Betts: ... there's no guarantee I am pronouncing it even remotely correctly, so I will spell it for you, F-E-J-O-K-O-O, Fejokoo. What body in the solar system is Fejokoo? A crater upon. Go to contest.

Mat Kaplan: Have you seen that sequel yet? Uh, oh no, no, sorry, that's Jumanji. I wonder if that's one, yeah, will also up there. Anyway you have until the 25th, just happens to be Christmas in so much of the [00:37:00] world, December 25th Wednesday at 8:00 AM Pacific time to uh, get us this answer. You might win yourself.

This is brand new from our friend Thomas uh,, they are new planetary radio stickers and it's about time, 'cause I pretty much run out of the old ones, but these are cool. They're square, they have rounded corners and I can't wait to get my hand on, hands on some. You could win at least one, I don't know, we'll send you at least one of these, and uh, you can uh, display your, your planetary radio and planetary society, a fandom, wherever you want to put it. I'm going to put my, on one of my forehead, I think, I-

Bruce Betts: [Laughs].

Mat Kaplan: ... and anyway [laughs], that, that's what it'll be, um, there in the planetary society store, we're done.

Bruce Betts: All right everybody, go out there. Look up the night sky and think about if weeds grow so well, why don't we plant weeds? Thank you and good night.

Mat Kaplan: [Laughs]. You know, I remember the revelation that hit me when I [00:38:00] was, I don't know, eight years old, that weeds are just the plants you don't want.

Bruce Betts: Yeah, but what if we did?

Mat Kaplan: [Laughs].

Bruce Betts: Then we'd feel so successful as gardeners.

Mat Kaplan: [Laughs]. Words to live by from the chief scientist of the planetary society, and that's Bruce Betts, who joins us every week here for What's Up.

Planetary Radio is produced by The Planetary Society in Pasadena, California, and is made possible by its members who are proud to make the Shoemaker NEO grant program possible. You can join them at Mark Hilverda is our associate producer, Josh Doyle composed our theme, which is ranged and performed by Peter Schlosser. I'm Mat Kaplan. Ad astra.