AstroFest 2020 – Space Missions

AstroFest 2020 – Space Missions
Can't get to a mountaintop telescope, wait for a clear sky, or dim outdoor lightning? Not a concern for those attending European AstroFest 2020 at the end of January. “The Universe under One Roof” was back in Kensington, London, and there was plenty to see.

A big attraction is the numerous stands selling all kinds of equipment for amateur astronomy. But you could also find astronomy societies, festivals and travel, books, distance learning courses and even a range of jewellery. Astronomy Now organises the festival and their stand had magazines, posters, space patches, calendars and the occasional book signing.

The Kensington Conference and Events Centre includes a theatre which seats over 800 people. This was the venue for the conference program which presented 15 speakers. It was chaired by Professor Lucie Green, solar astronomer and author, and Dr Stuart Clark, author and prize-winning journalist.

A dominant theme of this year's conference was space missions. In addition to those up and running, we got previews of some approved missions still under development.

Hubble Space Telescope
At the end of the 1980s an extraordinary project was approved, and NASA was joined in the endeavor by the young European Space Agency (ESA). Hubble was the first space telescope, and Dr. Antonella Nota, ESA's Hubble Project Scientist, was involved from the beginning.

Hubble is thirty this year. When it was launched, brown dwarfs (failed stars) were still theoretical, and no one knew if there were exoplanets.

The new telescope was the butt of jokes when it turned out that the primary mirror was flawed. Its images were still better than those from ground-based telescopes, but that wasn't what was expected. However, space shuttle astronauts installed corrective optics, and over the years carried out further missions to effect repairs and provide upgrades.

ExoMars (2020)
ESA and Roscosmos (Russian space agency) are collaborating in a unique exploration of Mars that is unfolding in stages. Stage 1 was launched in 2016. Although the Trace Gas Orbiter has been operating since then, the Schiaparelli lander crashlanded. Using what they learned from the loss of Schiaparelli, the Rosalind Franklin rover will be launched this summer. It's the first rover designed both to travel across the Martian surface and to drill deeply for subsurface samples. A later mission is to collect the samples.

Anna Nash is an AIT (Assembly, Integration, and Testing) & Contamination Control Engineer at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory of University College London. She's been working on one of the rover's cameras to ensure that the electronics are robust, and that it achieves the biological cleanliness that international standards require for planetary protection.

Nash explained that materials – especially nonmetallic ones – release molecules. This is known as outgassing. If it happens in space, the molecules condense, possibly obscuring optical surfaces. So they bake the components before they're incorporated into the equipment. In addition, there are bioassays at every stage. Their cleanrooms are cleaner than an operating theater.

ESA's CHaracterising ExOPlanet Satellite was launched in December 2019. It's led by the University of Bern in Switzerland and 11 ESA member states are involved. Professor of Astronomy at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, Andrew Collier Cameron, is the UK Co-Investigator.

CHEOPS will study bright, nearby stars that are already known to host exoplanets, in order to make high-precision observations of a planet's size as it passes in front of its host star. It will make size determinations of planets discovered by NASA's TESS mission, and provide complementary data for ground surveys that find small planets using Doppler wobble. This detects slight wobbles of a star caused by the gravitational pull of a planet.

Hera and the Comet Interceptor Mission – both approved by ESA
Prof. Geraint Jones of University College London explained that they want the Comet Interceptor to study a long-period comet approaching the Sun for the first time. Previous comet missions have involved comets that have been round the Sun numerous times. By exploring comets, we learn about the origins of our Solar System.

The Hera mission could be important to all of us. Earth is bombarded by rocks from space – mostly tiny, but occasionally big enough to cause a Tunguska or Chelyabinsk event. Space agencies are trying to find and monitor near Earth objects. But what do we do if we find one on a collision course? Alan Fitzsimmons, of Queen's University Belfast, explained that evidence for various proposals is purely theoretical, but Hera is designed to test one of them.

Europe and Space19+: the decade ahead
Jan Wörner, Director General of the European Space Agency, gave a brief history of the formation of ESA and how it works. There are currently 22 member states and cooperation agreements with several other countries, including Canada. He emphasized that ESA is not an arm of the European Union (EU) and to audience laughter, assured us that the UK was still a member of ESA. (The UK had exited from the EU only hours before.)

The lively and engaging presentation was one of the highlights of the conference.

Note: I attended AstroFest as a guest of the organizers. My thanks to Steven Young and everyone at Astronomy Now.

You Should Also Read:
AstroFest 2020 – Potpourri
Search for Earth's Twin – book review
Goodbye Spirit

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