Sandoval Signpost


An independent monthly newspaper serving the community since 1988
  Night Sky

Turn off or shield your outside lights downward 
Left unshielded, they ruin the starry night sky and annoy your neighbors. Light glare going upward doesn’t help deter crime. Keep the night sky available for everyone.

October Night Sky

~Charlie Christmann

Ode to Cassini:

Cassini, NASA’s wildly successful mission to Saturn, met its demise early in the morning on September 15, 2017, at about 6:00 a.m. MDT. While it was only 19 years and 11 months old, this mighty explorer provided us more information about the planet Saturn in its 13+ years of circling the ringed planet than we had collected in all of human existence.

Embarking from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on October 15, 1997 atop a Titan IVB/Centaur booster, the intrepid craft made close passes by Venus, Earth, and Jupiter in 1998, 1999, and 2000 to boost its speed and launched it toward a rendezvous with Saturn. Cassini fired its main engine on June 30, 2004, to settle into orbit and begin its scientific mission. Though it was expected to have only a lifetime of four years at Saturn, this probe’s heart and stamina persisted into two mission extensions.

High on its list of accomplishments was the release of its small companion probe, the European Space Agency’s Huygens, on December 24, 2004. Huygens plummeted into the atmosphere of Titian, Saturn’s largest moon, to taste its atmosphere and image its surface as it parachuted down to the surface on January 14, 2005. Before succumbing to the shivering -300 degree Fahrenheit cold, Huygens found nitrogen, methane, traces of ammonia, argon, and ethane in the atmosphere and showed us images of rock hard water ices forming mountains and valleys likely carved by running streams of ethane and methane. It also provided a tantalizing measurement of a hydrogen deficit near the surface—could something “alive” be eating the hydrogen, something living with a chemistry completely unknown to us? Science says it is possible, but Huygens saw nothing we recognize as living in its images.

Continuing on alone, Cassini continued to orbit Saturn studying the known moons and rings, and discovering and naming an additional six moons. On Enceladus, Cassini found geysers shooting water from its southern polar region and forming a tenuous outer ring. It also showed Enceladus likely has a liquid ocean under its icy surface. A close fly-by tasted the plumes of water and showed they contained minerals and organics; the right mix of ingredients to allow life as we know it on Earth.

The probe also discovered the moon Pan, looking like a flying saucer within the Encke Gap of Saturn's A-ring. Then there is the anomaly around the moon Rhea. Measurements indicate that Saturn's second largest moon might have a tenuous ring system of its own.

As for the rings themselves, Cassini showed us that the thirty foot thick rings, which have puzzled mankind since Galileo Galilei first saw them with his telescope in 1610, were not static, but responded to both the magnetic field of Saturn and the passing of moons within the rings. There are spokes presumably created by electrical charges. Moons orbiting along the edges of the rings kick up mountains of ring particles several miles high as they pass by. And the main rings themselves have groves and look similar to a phonograph record. The F Ring appears to be braided. It is composed of several narrow rings with bends and kinks giving us the illusion that these strands are braided. It also has bright clumps that look like propellers. These may be caused by yet to be seen moonlets.

Much of the discoveries in the Cassini data have yet to be found as the craft generated more than 630 gigabytes of data and returned over 450,000 images to Earth in its 294 orbits around Saturn.

Running low on fuel, the Cassini management team decided it could not risk the spacecraft crashing on one of Saturn’s moons where life was a potential. The decision of how to end the Cassini mission was simple, to keep it away from the moons, the craft would dive into Saturn’s atmosphere. It took only a minute or two from atmospheric entry to spacecraft breakup. Cassini ended its life in a blaze of glory.

The NASA Jet Propulsion Lab recalled nine reasons Cassini was so important:

  1. NASA’s Cassini spacecraft and ESA’s Huygens probe expanded our understanding of the kinds of worlds where life might exist.
  2. At Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, Cassini, and Huygens showed us one of the most Earth-like worlds we’ve ever encountered, with weather, climate, and geology that provide new ways to understand our home planet.
  3. Cassini is, in a sense, a time machine. It has given us a portal to see the physical processes that likely shaped the development of our solar system, as well as planetary systems around other stars.
  4. The length of Cassini’s mission has enabled us to observe weather and seasonal changes, improving our understanding of similar processes at Earth, and potentially those at planets around other stars.
  5. Cassini revealed Saturn’s moons to be unique worlds with their own stories to tell.
  6. Cassini showed us the complexity of Saturn’s rings and the dramatic processes operating within them.
  7. Some of Cassini’s best discoveries were serendipitous. What Cassini found at Saturn prompted scientists to rethink their understanding of the solar system.
  8. Cassini represents a staggering achievement of human and technical complexity, finding innovative ways to use the spacecraft and its instruments, and paving the way for future missions to explore our solar system.
  9. Cassini revealed the beauty of Saturn, its rings and moons, inspiring our sense of wonder and enriching our sense of place in the cosmos.

Fare thee well brave and faithful spacecraft. You will be missed. Rest in Peace.

Placitas Star Party shines in October

The Autumn Placitas Star Party is scheduled to take place at the Placitas Community Library, 453 Highway 165, on October 14. This event will begin at dusk (sunset is at 6:31 p.m.) and continue into the night. There will be a variety of telescopes to guide you to the wonders of our dark skies. This event is co-sponsored by The Albuquerque Astronomical Society (TAAS) and the Placitas Community Library.

Learn not only about the sky but also about the different telescopes on hand. Star parties are a leisurely, fun, and informal way to gain knowledge, meet other sky watchers, and to stimulate your own interest our cosmos.

The Placitas Star Party is free and open to all ages. Arrive early, dress warmly, and only use red flashlights or headlamps in the observing area in order to preserve night vision. For more information, go to,, or call contact 867-3355.

Loma Colorado Main Library Star Party

Rio Rancho Public Libraries invites the community to a Star Party at the Loma Colorado Main Library on October 10, from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. Join the Albuquerque Astronomical Society, the Rio Rancho Astronomical Society, and local educators for a night under the stars. Explore different constellations in the Portable Planetarium, learn how to use a telescope to view the stars, and try a new hands-on activity. Also, find out how you will be able to borrow a telescope at the library this fall. Tickets for the planetarium will be handed out on October 10 to four showings. The library is located at 755 Loma Colorado Boulevard NE.

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