Sunday, 12 March 2017

Star Gayzing : Rings Around Uranus

When I was young the only new discoveries in space came from human space missions. The Apollo missions dominated my childhood and it wasn’t until my teens that deep space probes were bringing us new wonders in our solar system.

Today massive advances in technology has meant that there are new discoveries made very day. In the 1970s the Pioneer, Voyager and Viking probes gave astronomy headline news. Very soon it felt as if new discoveries were coming so quickly that they weren’t newsworthy anymore (just like the later space shuttle missions that came and went without much public notice compared with the first).

But there were some significant discoveries of the 1970s that made headlines which have almost been forgotten. They received wide attention at the time but seem to have been left behind in the memory. One of these discoveries celebrated its 40th anniversary two days ago and its one I actually remember well from that time (I think I may have some original newspaper clippings somewhere). One of the scientists responsible for making the discovery is a member of the lgbt community.

On 10th March 1977 the 25-year-old Jessica Mink (at that time known as Douglas) was sitting in a plane flying over the Indian Ocean. The plane was fitted out with astronomically(!) expensive equipment that was serving as the Kuiper Airborne Observatory. The object of the flying observatory’s mission that day was to take readings of the atmosphere of Uranus as its orbit took it in front of a distant star. By analysing the results in the miniscule changes in the star’s known spectrograph at the moments before it was obscured by Uranus and re-emerged on the other side scientists could work out what gases were in the planet’s atmosphere. It seemed to be a fairly straight-forward mission.

What Jessica Mink and her fellow astrophysicists saw on their instruments on board that plane were not expected. Rather than dip in brightness and colour just before the star was obscured by Uranus the instrument showed that it appeared to make several dips before it vanished behind the planet. The dips were mirrored when the star came back into view on the other side. Jessica’s apocryphal reaction was that “Uranus has its own asteroid belt”. Of course, all of this was by observing the readings on the equipment and not by human eye. Having obtained all of the information the flying observatory returned to frim ground and the scientists took the data back with them to Cornell University.

Once the data was analysed the realisation that the asteroid belt was in fact a series of rings around Uranus took the astronomical world by surprise. Last year Jessica admitted that the discovery was her most favourite moment in her 41-year career.

Since that discovery was made a lot more research has been carried out into the rings and they were “photographed” by the Voyager 2 probe in 1986. More rings have been found, and new satellites which act as shepherd moons keeping the rings on position.

The discovery of the rings, made with James Elliot and Edward Dunham, established Jessica’s reputation in astronomy. Her main emphasis has been on developing software to analyse astronomical data, most significantly on what is called high speed photometry, the equipment that led to Jessica being on that flying observatory 40 years ago.

More recently Jessica Mink has become one of the leading advocates for female and transgender astronomers. Jessica joined the AAS, the American Astronomical Society, in 1972 and in 2012 she was appointed by Wladimir Lyra and Stefan Meschiar of the AAS Working Group on LGBT Equality. Jessica was invited to help the profile of transgender astronomers and be a speaker for them. She continues to speak on their behalf and currently works at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.

The following YouTube video gives Jessica a name-check half way through.

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