Thursday 12 May 2016

Star Gayzing : Twins, Triplets and Enormous Eruptions

Five of the major planets have been known about since ancient times. The others have been discovered by scientific observations since 1781 when Uranus was found. The names of the people who discovered these planets were well-known in their lifetimes, even the discoverer of the demoted dwarf planet Pluto became a celebrity when he found it in the 1930s.

But, unless you look it up, would you know who discovered the most recent asteroids, comets or satellites? Since the development of better technology the discovery of extra-terrestrial objects has rocketed out of all proportion compared to what has been discovered on Earth. In fact, there’s so many interstellar objects that most of them don’t even have names yet, only reference identity codes (a topic I’ll return to later this year).

One lgbt astronomer has made some important discoveries in recent years and very few outside the scientific world have heard of him. His name is Franck Marchis (b.1973).

With so many astronomical discoveries being made all the time we may be forgiven for not being aware of Franck Marchis’s own discoveries. French-born Marchis earned his PhD in planetary science from the University of Toulouse in 2000. During his studies at La Silla Observatory in Chile he participated in the development of a technique called adaptive optics. This is a technique which enables ground-based telescopes to compensate for the atmospheric distortions which can blur the images of space.

After his PhD he got a postdoctoral position at the University of California Berkeley. It was using the adaptive optics system that Franck and his team discovered the biggest volcanic eruption ever seen. It was on Jupiter’s moon Io, a moon more or less the same size as our Moon.

One of the biggest surprises when the Voyager spacecraft reached Jupiter in the 1970s was the sight of Io. Even the scientists, who are always saying their view of the solar system is right because it’s based on scientific principles, were surprised. Io turned out to be the most volcanically active body in the solar system. Its position in the satellite system of Jupiter creates pressures which constantly pull at the moon. In February 2001 Franck and his team spotted a particularly large volcanic eruption on Io. Measurements indicated that the lava spurted several miles into the sky at great speed. The lava settled to cover an area bigger than London or Los Angeles. If Io was our own Moon the sight would have been spectacular and would have lit up the sky, even during daytime. It was the biggest volcanic eruption ever seen.

Using adaptive optics can also be used to discover small objects. Franck has used this technique to discover more moons, this time orbiting asteroids. When Pluto was being demoted there was a debate on how to define a planet. Some said that planets were objects which orbit the Sun and are big enough to have moons. Pluto had a moon so it was planet, they said. It was pointed out that some small asteroids had moons as well.

In 2005 Franck Marchis discovered a second little moon around one asteroid, an asteroid called Sylvia. Perhaps companion would be a better description than moon. This meant that Sylvia became the first known triple asteroid. The already known companion-moon was called Romulus, and Franck’s new one was named Remus (in full, 87 Sylvia II Remus). In Roman mythology, Romulus and Remus were the twin sons of Sylvia. The photo below is an actual image of the triple asteroid taken by Franck Marchis.
Since then he has discovered four moonlets that make up three more triple asteroids, and several twin asteroids (see here for the discovery by Franck and fellow gay astronomer Mike Wong of a moonlet around the asteroid Hektor).

In 2007 Franck Marchis’s achievements were recognised when he actually had an asteroid named after him, the name being published just two days before his 24th birthday. AND it was discovered by La Silla Observatory where Franck conducted most of his thesis research. Actually, today, 12 May 2016, is quite special, because today Earth reached its closest point to asteroid 6639 Marchis. It is orbiting in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter at almost twice the distance from the Sun as we are.

All this talk of twins neatly links Franck Marchis to another significant achievement. Last November he and his husband won a legal battle to have their adopted twin sons officially recognised in the Czech Republic, where his husband Jindra and the twins come from. Destiny or synchronicity (I don’t believe in coincidence)? The twins were born on the same day that Franck and Jindra got married! Czech law did not allow adoption by gay couples, but Franck’s case changed all that, paving the way for more gay adoptions in that country.

Franck Marchis (left) and husband Jindra Vackar (right)
with their twin sons Viktor and Etian Marchis-Vackar.
Photo by Steve Underhill.

STOP PRESS : Two days ago (28 June 2016) the Czech Supreme Court finally overturned the complete ban on lgbt couples and individuals adopting children. The case of Franck Marchis and Jindra Vackar was the one which pioneered the ruling.

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