Rocks from space pose real threat
by Ted Pedas
The Cosmos
The Vindicator
May 31, 1998

[Article - The Cosmos] Within the broad category of movies that deal with death from outer space there's a separate, smaller genre that focuses on a “meteor threatens Earth” theme. Two movies with this theme are prominent this summer — or, as one clever pundit puts it, “obliterating a theater near you. ”

I imagine movies about the beauty of the night sky and the knowledge we could glean from asteroids and meteors wouldn't be blockbusters. There's a greater fascination with death and destruction, especially on a planetwide scale.

I'll admit from the start that I haven't seen the newly-opened “Deep Impact.” Reviewers say the highly-promoted special effects — including the spectacular, city-destroying tsunami — come at the end of the film.

Most of the movie explores the human side of disaster: who lives, who dies and who decides.

Willis Film:The movie “Armageddon” is still in post-production. It features Bruce Willis as the hero on a mission to destroy an asteroid “the size of Texas” on a collision course with Earth.

Other memorable entries in the “menacing meteor” category include the 1994 television movie “Without Warning,” in which a veritable meteor shower of deadly space rocks threatens our planet.

In 1979, the movie “Meteor” has the United States and Russia combining forces to stop a meteor, and the 1951 movie “When Worlds Collide” has a rogue planet wandering around the solar system on a collision course for (where else?) Earth.

And then there's the 1969 Japanese asteroid film that has had more titles than reviews. Of its six titles, including “Battle Beyond the Stars” and “The Battle of Space Station Gamma,” they settled on “The Green Slime.”

Heroic space station astronauts are able to destroy an asteroid heading toward Earath, but — in wonderful Japanese movie monster tradition — they bring back a green slime that turns into one-eyed creatures that menace humanity.

Take your pick: Rocks from space or monsters from slime — take your pick for the more deadly menace. If you're wise, you'll go with the rocks.

Movie magic aside, “rocks from space” are real. From the tiny grains that make up spendthrift shooting stars to the huge asteroids and comets that pummeled our planet millions of years ago, we have plenty of proof that collision is a fact of life in the solar system.

The craters on the moon, on Mars, under the clouds of Venus, on the rocky moons of the giant planets; all tell the story of impacts and collisions. Even Earth still bears the signs — Meteor Crater in Arizona, Clearwater Lakes in Canada, Monicougan Crater in Canada, and Spider Crater in Australia are clearly impact craters that haven't been erased by Earth's active surface.

Other proof: We watched Jupiter taking the multiple hits of a shattered comet in 1994. We were glued to our television screens watching reality, not fantasy.

The object that exploded over Tunguska, Russia, in 1908 was a large meteor or comet. Another meteor broke up and fell over the forest of Sikhote-Alin in Russia in 1947.

Evidence is mounting that the impact that destroyed the dinosaurs and more than 60 percent of all living things on Earth 65 million years ago was created by a comet or asteroid six miles in diameter that fell on the Yucatan Peninsula.

The small fishing town of Chicxulub is now located at the center of the 150 mile-wide crater that is partially buried under water.

Recent concern: More recently, a Skywatch astronomer discovered a mile-wide asteroid that appeared to be on a collision course with Earth in the year 2028, but its orbital trajectory was later computed more accurately and it will miss us by more than 600,000 miles.

Skywatch at Kitt Peak in Arizona and the Near Earth Asteroid Tracking program in Hawaii are the only two major projects that are tracking near-Earth asteroids.

At a recent conference, space scientists report they've found four dozen “potentially hazardous objects” whose orbits will bring them close to Earth one day — too close for comfort.

What's Coming: Even smaller objects can cause damage, especially to satellites. Some astronomers are already predicting that this year's Leonid meteor shower in November, expected to be near its 33-year peak in meteor activity, may damage some of the nearly 500 satellites orbiting Earth.

The tiny particles are moving so fast that they can easily be compared to bullets. The European Space Agency's Olympus satellite was struck by a meteor in 1993 and its directional control was destroyed.

Although the odds of damage are small, project's managers are planning to turn their expensive equipment in space away from the path of the incoming meteors to minimize possible damage. The Hubble Space Telescope, for example, will be turned to protect its optical system.

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“Cosmos” column enters thirtieth year
by Ted Pedas
The Cosmos
The Vindicator
October 2, 1994

[Article - The Cosmos] Today's column marks the beginning of the 30th year for this weekly feature, and the past three decades have seen many changes.

My first column in October of 1965 was manually typed on an Underwood portable typewriter, with extra sheets for carbon copies, and then stuffed into an envelope and mailed to the Vindicator.

Today's column began like all the ones since, as a collection of handwritten notes; after that the similarity ends. The finished text was entered into a word processing program on a desktop computer and then electronically delivered by modem over the phone lines to one of the Vindicator's computers. These words were typeset and composited and finally printed onto the newspaper you are holding.

Such modern day technological marvels seem taken for granted by most of the working world. Yet all of these innovations from computers, modems and fax machines to CD-ROM's, video tape recorders, satellite weather simulations and near instant global communications have only become part of our daily lives in recent times.

Communications: All of this was a far cry from the world we lived in when my first Cosmos column ran. In the mid sixties weather satellites like Nimbus were big news. Today, the weather channel on Cable TV gives us instant and constant information on environmental conditions the world over.

Thirty years ago commmunications satellites like Echo and Telstar were causing a stir. Overseas phone calls were scratchy and full of static from undersea phone cables, we watched fuzzy black and white TV images from Europe and reels of sixteen millimeter news film and bags of airmail were transported by airborne couriers. News of world events was often received days or weeks after the fact.

Today from our desktop computers we can access the global Internet to gather information and send electronic mail across town or to people in New Zealand, and we can transmit and receive color video to and from anywhere in the world. We can keep up-to-the-minute on world events from our living room easy chairs.

Space Age:As I write this column I just finished watching the landing of the latest Space Shuttle mission after a successful flight to test a new rocket-propelled backpack that astronauts may use to help build the space station.

In 1965, the two-man Gemini missions were reaching a climax and the important question was whether people could even live in space for a couple of weeks at a stretch.

Emphasis was being shifted over to the three-man Apollo missions and the giant Saturn Five rocket that would give us the best shot of reaching the Moon before 1970 as President Kennedy had challenged.

Three decades ago the major news magazines and newspapers were just starting regular science and space features to keep the public informed on late breaking events in the space race and other technological developments.

Today, fax-newsletters and computer bulletin boards distribute the latest information within hours, and TV news magazines present regular features on science, technology and the environment.

Astronomy: Astronomers today are trying to map the life history of the known Universe, and searching for planets and the beginning of life in distant star systems.

Three decades ago, scientists were marvelling at the first Mariner photos of Mars, surprised to see craters on that dusty red planet. The number of known moons in the solar system was 31 (doubled since then) and planetary astronomers were still guessing about the nature of Saturn's rings and Jupiter's clouds.

Today the complete legacy of solar system exploration all the way through the Voyager discoveries of the outer planets is stored on CD-ROM and can be called up on any desktop computer. Video flybys of the outer moons show us three-dimensional surface detail on bodies that, thirty years ago, were only fuzzy points of light in even the largest telescopes.

Telescopes:In 1965 one of those large telescopes, the biggest in existence, was the 200-inch reflector on Mt. Palomar in California. Under its photographic gaze, Jupiter showed thin lines of color, the outermost planet, Pluto, was a blurry disk and distant galaxies appeared as ghostly pinwheels of light.

Today, orbiting above our planet is the Hubble Space Telescope whose digital eye can show us holes punched in Jupiter's clouds by an errant comet, the double-planet of Pluto/Charon, the formation of new planets in dense stellar clouds and the innermost secrets of our distant galactic neighbors.

As I look back over my collection of over 1,500 columns I realize that there will not soon again be another period of time wherein one generation so many frontiers were crossed.

We have lived in the golden age of modern exploration and thanks to you, my readers, and the foresight of the Vindicator, I have been able to share the wonder and excitement of the Cosmos for the past thirty years.

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Response to eclipse articles astounds the columnist
by Ted Pedas
The Cosmos
The Vindicator
May 15, 1994

Poking in and out of the sparse cloud cover, last Tuesday's annular eclipse of the Sun was a cosmic spectacle that generated a flurry of local interest. This writer has seen many eclipses, annular, partial and total from land, sea and sky in many corners of the Earth. But last Tuesday's eclipse is one that I will not soon forget.

The credit for the unique experience provided me by this event is due to the readers of this column. I always felt that there was a scattering of people that followed Cosmos each Sunday, but I wasn't prepared for the avalanche of letters received when an offer was made several weeks ago to supply safety viewing glasses for the eclipse.

PUBLIC SERVICE: As a public service, the Ted Pedas Planetarium announced an opportunity for readers to obtain these eclipse viewers by mail. A deluge followed!

The Planetarium received more than a thousand requests from an eleven county area in eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania. All of a sudden we became aware of the number of local cities, villages, boroughs, municipalities and townships whose names we had never heard before.

Heading the list of avid eclipse watchers were more than a hundred teachers and schools who were planning to take advantage of this display of nature to provide an educational opportunity for their students. We can't possibly mention them all, but the very first letter opened was a request for 217 pair of eclipse glasses from St. Joseph the Provider school in Campbell, Ohio.

Kind notes: Most all requests were accompanied by a kind note of appreciation for the offering of this service.

They came on personal stationary, doctor's office prescription forms, restaurant guest checks, children't notepads, yellow sticky notes as well as formal business letterheads.

They came written in pen, lead-pencil, colored-pencil, watercolor, magic marker, typewriter, word processor and crayon.

The envelopes bore stamps that sported flowers, animals, presidents, celebrities, love-hearts, american flags, automobiles and holographic images of astronauts and spacecraft. But they all had one thing in common: a burning interest to take part in one of nature's grandest performances — one of the greatest shows “above the Earth”

The return envelopes were stuffed with the eclipse glasses, with a prepared informational handout on this astronomical light show and also with an important list of do's and don'ts for looking at the Sun.

Mail increased: As time went by the amount of incoming mail increased. Some people were writing for additional pairs. Others, upon reading the enclosed literature decided it would be interesting for far-flung family members to get involved.

Some mail contained notes instructing us to send more eclipse glasses to New Hampshire and New York to South Carolina and Florida; New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania to Texas, St. Louis and Kansas City.

Diverse watchers: The eclipse watchers themselves were as diverse as their hometowns. We sent mail out to doctors, TV repairmen, secretaries, school board members, news and media personalities, lawyers, waitresses, truck drivers, corporate executives, mothers, fathers, children and even whole families (one request was for 120 pairs for a week-long family reunion).

From long-time readers of this column we received scores of enthusiastic thank you's for providing not only information on this eclipse but on all astronomical and space events on earth, in the sky and throughout the universe.

From Florida: One request arrived all the way from Orange Park, Florida, along with a letter from a first grade teacher who still subscribes to the Vindicator. She writes: “…I have the Vindicator mailed to me…because I like to use your Cosmos column as a teaching resource…Thank you for your inspiring writings on things celestial…”

Nearly three decades ago I met with the late William J. Brown, Vindicator publisher, to discuss the writing of a regular column entitled “The Sky This Month.”

Mr. Brown suggested, however, that with the dawning of the Space Age, there would be more public interest in astronomy and space exploration. He suggested the column be a weekly format.

Over these past 29 years his foresight has proven itself correct time and again — never more so than this past week.

Loyal readers: The response to my series of eclipse articles has revealed just how many loyal devotees of this column are out there and how interested you are in the Universe.

I would like to take this opportunity to send a heartfelt ‘thank you’ to all the Cosmos readers.

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