Astronomy, Jupiter and Pluto the topics of public presentation at Cal Poly

Apr 12, 2017

April 12 on the Cal Poly campus, there is a free public presentation by one of the world's foremost astronomers, Dr. Fran Bagenal. KCBX invited Cal Poly astronomy professor Dr. John Keller and Joseph Carro, the president of the Central Coast Astronomical Society, to the studio to hear more about Dr. Bagenal and her presentation, learning astronomy at Cal Poly, and stargazing on the Central Coast. 

MART: Please tell me about what's happening at Cal Poly Wednesday evening.

KELLER: Fran Bagenal is a researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder. She’s coming to Cal Poly for Wednesday and Thursday to give a talk about the New Horizons mission and the Juno mission, which are both at Pluto and Jupiter. This is our first annual Sue and Ross Benitez Space Exploration Forum, and Fran is our featured speaker at the Wednesday event.

MART: Tell me about the missions themselves, I know nothing about these.

KELLER: So Fran is part of two missions - the New Horizons mission flew past Pluto two summers ago...did the closest fly-by of that outer dwarf planet and it's continuing on to another part of the solar system...for another encounter about two years from now. So that's one mission she’ll talk about. The other is the Juno mission, which is currently orbiting around Jupiter... doing the closest fly- bys over the surfaces of Jupiter's cloud tops that we've ever had. It's actually studying the interior of Jupiter, understanding the interior mechanisms of what's happening in that large gas planet.

MART: Is it sending back images?

KELLER: So both missions have images that they send back using radio waves. But the central core of Jupiter is... the Juno mission is actually to study the interior of Jupiter by looking at the gravitational field. Fran’s specific speciality is in magnetic fields and Jupiter has a massive magnetic field, so [Juno] has a detector that measures the field particles and the conditions of the magnetic field of Jupiter.

MART: So what will people learn if they come to this event Wednesday evening?

KELLER: Fran will definitely be sharing amazing images, through lots of 3-D glass pictures of Pluto and Jupiter. Really, these two missions are the closest approaching satellites to these two planetary bodies that we've had, so amazing eye visuals of the images that were sent back by those missions. And then also just learning about the cutting edge we had never flown past Pluto, right? So this is a very,very first understanding of that dwarf planet surface, and the things that we've learned from the New Horizons mission. MART: And in two years, where is it going?

KELLER: Using the Hubble Space Telescope, the New Horizons team has actually identified a smaller objects further out in the solar system, in another part of the Kuiper Belt. It's a Kuiper Belt object. It's about a 40-kilometer-sized object, so very, very small. And we'll be - actually we don't know how big it is yet - they’re going to be doing research this summer to figure that out. But it's going to fly past the second Kuiper Belt object, which will be a very different world than Pluto. Pluto is a thousand kilometers big. So this is a factor of at least 10 times smaller than that, which will have an entirely different surface, with lots of different kind of features that you wouldn't necessarily expect.

MART: [turning to Carro] I didn't even know there was an astronomy society here. How long have you guys been around, and what do you do? Do you meet and look at the stars?

CARRO: Well, our activities are considerably more local than the ones that were described to you because we limit our activities to San Luis Obispo County [laughs]. But our basic mission is to provide an opportunity for people to observe celestial objects, and to attend meetings and get information about astronomy. It's all very informal but we've been doing this for quite a while now and we're very active in our local community. We go to high schools, elementary schools, and private groups. We also have public meetings at the KOA campground in Santa Margarita. They're open to the general public. There is no charge. And we also have monthly meetings at the Wesley building - the Methodist Church on Frederick Street. And those two meetings are open to the general public, and anyone who wishes to attend may do so.

MART: How many members you have in the Central Coast Astronomical Society?

CARRO: We have about 80 active members and a mailing list of over 400.

MART: OK if I didn't have my own telescope, but I wanted to come would I be able to look at other people's telescopes?

CARRO: Well, at the general meetings, no. But at the KOA campground, yes. A group of astronomers will take their telescopes to that site and we use those telescopes, of course, to view objects in the sky.

MART: Is that one of the best places in the county, because of no light.. it's pretty rural?

CARRO: It's relatively dark. And it's fairly easy to reach. The darker locations...where you have to go farther east in our county, are more difficult to reach.

MART: Right. And of course in the west [county] you probably get cloud cover a lot. CARL: True. MART: How long have you guys been around?

CARRO: I don't know the exact age of our group. I joined in September 2003, and it was a fairly old group at that time.

KELLER: They do those Star Parties monthly. So every weekend around the new moon, any member of the public can go up to Santa Margarita to do public star viewing.

MART: That's good to know. And the new moon...meaning because there is no moon and it's dark, right?

KELLER: Correct.

MART: Can one study astronomy at Cal Poly?

KELLER: Within Cal Poly there are four faculty who study astronomy, and we're all part of the physics program. You can't get a major in astronomy, but you can minor in astronomy - from any major in the campus.

MART: And tell me about the specialty of the four faculty.

KELLER. Sure. So my research is specifically on the Kuiper Belts. I do a citizen science project that involves high schools stretching from Canada to Mexico, where we have high school teachers helping us measure these small objects out by Pluto, and this object that New Horizons are going to fly past…

MART: Do they actually provide data from high school students that you use?

KELLER: Correct. It’s a [National Science Foundation]-funded project and we have 55 high schools from the Canada border down to the Mexico border watching asteroids pass in front of stars and the telescopes that we've provided to those schools can actually measure the stars as they get affected by the starlight, coming from these objects in the solar system.

MART: Wow, that's cool.

KELLER: So that's an outer solar system project that I am a part of. Dr. Mitchell is another astronomer who does extrasolar planet transits. He's looking for extrasolar planets around other star systems. We also have two galactic astronomers, who study far-away galaxies, specifically the centers. Dr. Vardha Bennert studies the interior of supermassive black holes in the middle of galaxies. And then there is a new faculty just hired this fall, Louise Edwards does a lot of multi-wavelength astronomy in galactic astronomy. So we have a very active group of astronomers, mostly engaging students - undergraduates - and collecting data from telescopes around the solar system, stars in our galaxy, and then galaxies farther away.

MART: Where's the biggest giant telescope to the Central Coast?

KELLER: The closest one that Cal Poly is centrally involved in is the Lick Observatory, up at Mt. Hamilton, in the Bay Area. Dr. Bennert created a remote observing session on the Cal Poly campus that is directly connected to that telescope. So we have college students who are using our control room on campus to use the Lick Observatory 3-meter telescope. Two nights ago they were observing from Cal Poly, using the 3-meter telescope at Lick Observatory. So it's a great resource for undergraduates to be able to do astronomy.

CARL: Actually, remote telescopy is a very useful tool. I personally have a subscription with two centers - one located in Santiago, Chile and one located on the Canary Islands, off of West Africa. And I get photographs from those telescopes that I analyzed and then use that data for my reports.

MART: Excellent. So you're sitting at home, looking remotely…

CARRO: Well, not actually looking...I basically send coordinates, they put the coordinates into their systems and take photographs. Then they send the photographs to me.

MART: Ok I see. Did you have a career in astronomy?

CARRO: No. But as I related to Dr. Keller earlier. I mean this is a completely true story, in August of 2003, Mars was as close to the earth as it ever gets. And as I looked at it with a pair of binoculars, I remarked to my wife Sharon, wouldn't it be wonderful, I said, if we had a telescope so that we could look at this planet? And on September 20 of that year - which was my birthday - when I got home from work, there was a telescope in the living room.

MART: I love that. And so that’s what got you started...

CARRO: That’s what got me started.

MART: Did you have a career in physics?

CARRO: I have a bachelor's degree in biology and a master's degree in Business Administration.

MART; I see, but that’s what got you started, getting your own telescope. Where do you have it set up? Is it in your backyard? Is it portable?

CARRO: Well if you consider 72 pounds portable, yes (laughs). So, yes, most of the time I set it up in my backyard. I live in West Paso Robles where it's relatively dark, but I frequently go to other locations in order to take advantage of the darker environment.

MART: Tell me about Fran Bagenal.

KELLER: Fran is a planetary scientist from the University of Colorado in Boulder. She's been active in space missions for several decades now. She’s a lead on one of the main magnetometer instruments on the Juno mission…

MART: What is a magnetometer?

KELLER: It’s a magnetic field detector. So basically you measure the magnetic field of Jupiter. And so this is part of an annual event that Cal Poly plans to give for the next X number of years. It's the Ross and Sue Benitez Space Exploration Forum. We intend to bring a speaker around who's doing some type of work in space exploration each year for public talk to basically raise awareness and publicity about the types of really cool, exciting discoveries that are happening as we explore the environment around us.

MART: What else would you like the public to know about the Cal Poly program or the event….

KELLER: I would really encourage people to come out to the Spanos theater at Cal Poly, just behind the performing art center. The talk will start at 7:00 p.m. with the doors opening at 6:30. Fran will be giving an hour-and-a-half talk about both Pluto and Jupiter, so if any of your listeners want to learn anything about the cutting edge research on these two bodies. She will also be there for answering questions until 8:30, so should be a really great event. Fran is one of the central researchers on the largest planet in the solar system, Jupiter, and the smallest dwarf planet. One of the largest dwarf planets, but a very small planet in our solar system as well - Pluto.

MART: I thought Pluto was degraded from “planet” status.

KELLER: Pluto is now characterized as a dwarf planet. And I would encourage people to think about the fact that planet is in the term dwarf planet. So it is still a's just a smaller planet. Many folks thought that it stopped being even an object, but it is still out there in this solar system with lots to teach us about where the solar system came from.

MART: Is Pluto similar to the size of earth?

KELLER: Pluto is a tenth of the diameter.

MART: OK I got it. Great. And if people want more information, does the Central Coast Astronomical Society have a website?

CARRO: It’s And individuals are welcome to send questions, ask about astronomy and I'll be happy to answer them. We have the monthly meetings here in San Luis Obispo, and our Star Parties - that's what we call them - at the KOA campground - also monthly. And as John mentioned, they're usually held at the beginning of the month when there is no moon because a full moon would just fill the sky with light and obliterate virtually every object out there.. So yes, people are welcome to send questions. We also provide instruction when individuals buy a telescope or have one they don't know how to use. So we'll be happy to try and help them.

MART: Yes, that would be very useful. If someone gave me a telescope, I wouldn’t know how to use it, it would take me a while to learn..

KELLER: The Central Coast Astronomical Society does a great job working with the general public. And this public talk that we'll be giving on Wednesday is also open to all audiences of all ages. It's a free public talk.