Newsletter for March, 2021

Welcome to the third of our monthly newsletters. We will be bringing this to your mailbox around the middle of each month, to keep you informed about Planetarium and Friends news, as well as happenings in the world of astronomy and events in our area related to science education. Visit the website for more news updates and a list of our articles.

NASA's mission to Mars was a success, and the rover has been sending a stream of beautiful images of the Red Planet back to Earth. The Ingenuity, which rode the rover down to the surface, will soon be testing the challenging idea of helicopter flight in the thin Mars atmosphere.

Fred Waller (1886-1954) was an inventor and film industry engineer. He ran the special effects department at Paramount during the 1920s and 30s and is best known today for developing Cinerama, one of the first "immersive" media formats. Most people don't know that Cinerama grew out of his highly successful Waller Flexible Gunnery Trainera multi-projector dome simulator that trained more than one million gunners during WW II. The simulator is credited with saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of allied soldiers. Contributed by Kathi Overton.

The 21 km² island is home to a dome that opened on February 21. It can accommodate an audience of 25, and will be free, at least during its pilot stage. 

This facility, operated by Mayland Community College, operates the largest public telescope in the southeast. It will host public viewing nights each Friday and Saturday, with COVID precautions observed, through the end of next month. The associated Glenn and Carol Arthur Planetarium and its 36-foot dome  will open later this year.

From March 7th to 12th, the telescope was in a protective "safe mode" after experiencing a software glitch. Things seem to be back on track, and the observatory has returned to carrying out its science mission.  The last time the Hubble had to enter safe mode was in October, 2018.


The Progress MS-16, which we wrote about here last month, was not aligned correctly on its automatic approach to the International Space Station, so cosmonaut Sergei Ryzhikov had to break out his manual control skills to guide the craft safely to the docking port. The supply ship carries, in addition to the usual replenishments, some reinforcing plates and glue for a temporary repair to a crack in the ISS.

The conventional theory says that it was an asteroid, but recent research points the finger at a comet. Evidence about the composition of the object makes a comet more likely than an asteroid, and gravitational simulations show that a collision between a sun-grazing comet and Earth is far more probable than previously thought.

Astronauts are testing the coating on an airplane seat buckle, fabric from airplane seats and seat belts, and parts of an armrest and tray table. The experiments involve regular touching of the objects by astronauts, and the measurement of transmission of common skin microbes. The goals include the development of coatings for use in future space missions. The coating was specifically modified to inhibit transmission of the COVID-19 virus after the emergence of the pandemic.

Microbes Unknown to Science Discovered on The International Space Station The bacteria are benign, and associated with soil and plant growth (the ISS astronauts tend to a small amount of vegetation).

Prof. Einstein Answers Your Questions
Prof. Einstein channeled by Dean Howarth

The formerly departed Albert Einstein joined us through a loophole in the spactime continuum brought to you by the Friends of Arlington's Planetarium. He graciously answered viewers' questions and recounted anecdotes from his life before death for almost an hour, in a live session watched by enraptured multitudes on the front page of our website.

According to NASA, we are in no danger. Asteroid 2001 FO32, discovered 20 years ago, will come as close as 2 million km. The rock is 440 to 680 m wide and will pass us at 124,000 km/h, which makes it a fast asteroid. Astronomers are looking forward to the close encounter as an opportunity to learn more about its composition.

The 91st anniversary of the Lowell Observatory's announcement of the discovery of Pluto fell on the 13th of March. The discovery was announced on the front page of the New York Times for March 14th, 1930, where, as you can see here, it was said to be "possibly larger than Jupiter". In 2006, the International Astronomical Union voted to demote Pluto to a dwarf planet; both the decision and the circumstances surrounding the vote are thought by many to be "messed up". The name for the former planet was suggested by 11-year-old Venetia Burney of Oxford, England. More recently, NASA's New Horizons mission has provided us with stunning new images and information about the distant [dwarf] planet.

In an interesting collision of politics with space, a microsatellite developed jointly by Japan's Hokkaido University and a government-funded university in Myanmar is being confined to quarters on the International Space Station by Japan. Japan became concerned, following the coup in Myanmar, that the satellite, designed for agricultural monitoring, might be repurposed by Myanmar's military dictatorship for other missions.