Not everyone may be aware, but the night sky is full of rare and incredible sights. Every year, the Perseus constellation rains meteors over our own backyards, and the NIU STEMCafe hosts a gathering to watch them sail by. This event provides a venue for speakers from such places as NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and the Argonne Nat'l Labs in Illinois, even some folks who travel as far as the South Pole to learn and share more knowledge about space and its goings-on. Judith Dymond of STEMCafe
The first speaker at the event (aside from STEMCafe's own Judith Dymond) was Christine Knudson, who works for NASA on the Mars rover program. Mars is our closest neighbor, the 4th planet of our Solar System. The Perserverance rover has been on Mars for years, seeking signs of life similar to the basic life elements found on our own planet, energy signatures, and especially signs of liquid. The newer Curiosity rover landed on Mars in 2012, and uses a specialized onboard system to analyze the soil samples it takes. It bounces the information off of an orbital relay into a Deep Space Network of Satellites(DSN), allowing communication to reach all the way back to Goddard Center.
Curiosity landed at a spot known as Bradbury Landing, which reaches temperatures as hot as 1000 Degrees Celsius, or approx. 1832 Degrees Fahrenheit! The craziest thing happened in March, though: Curiosity found thiophenes, an organic molecule. To get to the area the molecule has been detected and collect further samples has been an ordeal. NASA scientists like Christine spend their days taking and making the complicated measurements and calculations to properly navigate the rover from 242 Million Miles away. This was done for months so that the Curiosity rover could summit a particularly rough area known as the Greenheugh Pediment. When preparing for the Pediment, which they knew long in advance would be a tough hurdle, the NASA science team performed field work on Earth across many kinds of Geology, and slopes as steep as 31 degrees. The field tests proved their worth as Curiosity was able to manage the topography well.
The second speaker, Marco Castillo, was unfortunately telecommuting to the event due to the pandemic, but spoke to us from Boston about his job, designing the Life Detection Instrumentation used for Future missions Exploring the Solar System. His work was largely responsible for the Mass Organic Molecule Organizer aboard the European Space Agency's ExoMars Rover. The MOMA is equipped with its own next-gen mass spectrometer created proprietarily by his team. While the pre-mission work continues, the amazing machine has been tested to perfection, and even equipped with a one-of-a-kind 2-meter drill. The payload on this drill will be much larger and go deeper than any Mars mission has with its samples. Even though the ExoMars mission hasn't left the planet yet, Marco's team already is hard at work on its next mission: the Dragonfly Mass Spectrometer.
The Dragonfly is a commercial version of the MOMA that is in development for long-term use on a mission to Saturn's primary moon, Titan. Titan is the most likely body in the solar system to support life next to Earth, but it's much further away and much larger than the moon we think of. Titan is the second largest natural satellite in the solar system. Marco was almost a savant with his knowledge of deep intricacies regarding the operation of the Dragonfly's rotor-copter vehicle, and will likely participate in mission control for the Titan trip himself.
This year, I brought with me my own Canon digital camera in hopes of catching some of the streaks with a long exposure, but the weather made the event location too cloudy. I am fortunate enough, however, to have a great Uncle, Chuck, who was able to provide me with a photo of the Perseid meteor shower he shot in 2013. If you look closely, you can see the tails of a couple meteors shooting across the sky!