Monday, September 29, 2014

Last Week on Mars

An artist’s representation of MAVEN in orbit
Photo from
As summer has officially come to a close, on the forefront of everyone’s mind is the snowy winter ahead of us. What I’d like you to think about today, however, is not a change in weather, but rather a change in climate – and not here on Earth. If you have been paying attention to the news this weekend, you might already be aware that NASA’s latest Mars orbiter, MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution), successfully reached its orbit just before 10:30 pm the evening of September 21, after 10 months of traveling through space. With global attempts at Mars missions beginning in 1960, the past 54 years have seen just under a 60% success rate. This includes fly-bys, orbiters, landers, rovers, and now, MAVEN. Why has so much time, effort, and money been put into learning about Mars when the success rate is so low? The simplest answer to this question is to determine whether Mars once did, can currently, or will ever support life - but it goes further than that.

Throughout all of the missions to Mars, many differences have been observed between our home planet and the red planet, yet many parallels can be drawn between the two. While the differences have been able to change the human perception of how planets work, the similarities have the potential to teach us more about our Earth. Does the past of Mars look anything like present day Earth? If so, how did Mars come to be what it is now? Could Earth be on a track towards the same fate? The MAVEN spacecraft is another installation in mankind’s search for knowledge about Mars. MAVEN’s primary goal is to help us understand the upper atmosphere and what controls it. During the mission, the spacecraft will dip low enough in its orbit to gather information where the lower and upper atmosphere meet - providing data from the whole upper atmosphere. Through an understanding of the upper atmosphere, we will be able to discern how it has changed and how those changes may have impacted the surface of Mars. In conjunction with the rovers on the surface of Mars (most notably Curiosity, which successfully landed in August of 2012), MAVEN will put us one step closer to being able to answer the questions listed above.

An Artist’s Representation of Mangalyaan
Photo from
            In other news - just 3 days after MAVEN reached its orbit, another triumph was made in space exploration – India’s first interplanetary mission (another orbiter named Mangalyaan) successfully reached its orbit around Mars. About 50 years ago, the ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization) was founded, marking the beginning of India’s space program. When looking at the history of missions to Mars, it is quite impressive that India’s first attempt at Mars exploration was a success – a feat that no other space program has been able to accomplish. What is even more impressive is how much the mission cost; according to an article posted on, the cost of Mangalyaan in US dollars is about $74 million. This is just about 11% of the cost of MAVEN, which rang in at around $672 million. Mangalyaan was primarily intended as a demonstration of the technology India has acquired as opposed to pursuing a specific research goal (like MAVEN). This accounts for the majority of the cost disparity between the two; however, the idea that a successful Mars mission could cost so little (when compared to previous missions) gives hope that a future of more cost effective space exploration is possible.

The MAVEN team at the launch site the day before launch
Photo from
The importance of the missions to Mars isn’t limited to the knowledge gained, but encompasses the achievements of mankind. These projects take upwards of 10 years to come to fruition, with countless people working on them. Successful missions aid in the progress of science while simultaneously displaying how far we have come as a species. To be able to launch a spacecraft one night, knowing that 10 months later it will be orbiting Mars is something that was inconceivable just under 400 years ago when Dutch astronomer Christian Huygens discovered the planet.

For More Information about MAVEN visit
For More Information about Mangalyaan visit
To learn more about the Mars missions visit
And to learn about the people involved in MAVEN visit

Keely Criddle
JMuse/Physics & Astronomy Blogger 2014-2015

Friday, September 26, 2014

Our students dabble into science journalism!

With the new JMuse events aimed at Demystifying the Experts, who are, at least for this year, all scientists (an astronomer, a physicist, a chemist and a mathematician), and the ever increasing need to open communication between scientists and the rest of the world, we encouraged our students to try their hand at science writing.

Hence, we have a guest blogger for the year: Keely Criddle, who is a senior in our department, and can operate like a wiz the star ball of JMU’s John C. Wells Planetarium.

Keely's previous writing experience includes being one of the “Not-So-Closet Geeks” group who blogged book reviews while she was in high school, and her application for this position revealed that she is well aware of the skill set required for communicating science results to a wide audience. Her fingers are nimble too (after all, she has been a piano performance major at JMU before she saw the light and switched to physics).

With Keely on board, we are all looking forward to a rather regular abundance of science news that happen out there in the whole wide world, or right here at JMU.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Demystifying the Expert

There is a new show in town, and it’s having SCIENCE and COMEDY as the main protagonists!

JMU’s JMuse Cafe embraces a new format this year, at the nudge of two Physics & Astronomy faculty, Anca Constantin and Klebert Feitosa, and brings forward a novel way to stimulate the much needed dialogue between and among scientists and the public. With our “Demystifying the Expert” series of four up-beat, visually and socially appealing events where good-natured scholars trade barbs with comedians, all of us are bound to marvel at how much we can learn while laughing out loud.

The goal is to playfully explore interesting and unusual phenomena that science reveals, and their uses in modern life. All four events planned for the year will feature the JMU’s Improv’d Troupe trying to guess what our expert guest studies all day when they are not in the classroom teaching the science classes you all love (or don’t? and now you have the chance to really understand why or even change your mind about it).

It is planned to be a hilariously unique venture into the worlds of physicists, astronomers, mathematicians, chemists and the like.

It’s interactive!

It should be the Pick of the Day!

So mark your calendars! All events are scheduled on Thursdays at 6:30pm (doors 6:15):

*** Fall 2014
Oct. 2: astronomy, galaxies, black holes, X-rays
Nov. 6: plastic electronics, gold, physics of baseball

***Spring 2015
Jan. 29: mystery and calculus, hyper surfaces and evolution
Feb. 26: renewable energy, polymers, hybrids and performance

The Experts themselves are revealed close to the date of each event (see above the flyer announcing the first event for October 2), and especially during the event...

And we sure are going to blog about them all.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Fall Picnic

On Saturday (9.21) we had a beautiful day for the department picnic. In keeping with our way of looking at the world, we experimented with the venue. This fall, the picnic was held at the UPark athletic fields at the corner of Neff and Port Republic. The university provides a really large gas grill, covered picnic tables and a very nice artificial turf soccer field for the semi-annual faculty-student competition.

The chief cook, Gabriel Niculescu, provided us with delicious food and Costel Constantin made sure it was in ample supply. Lots of food, lots of fun.

A more complete set of photos can be found here.