LIVE FROM SPACE! The seventh planet!
By the time you read this, Voyager 2 will have entered the Uranian planetary system with its cameras whirring. And when it gets a minute, the unmanned probe that looks like a dragonfly will send its pictures home.
The Air & Space Museum will be waiting. For the past few days, the museum has been receiving signals from the Voyager spacecraft via a direct feed from the blue room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.
There are rings to count -- at least nine coal-black rings encircle the planet -- and moons to name -- 12 have been found so far, some within the past two weeks.
As the first spacecraft to encounter Uranus makes new discoveries on its six-hour fly-by, scientists will be looking for clouds under the planet's methane haze. If they spot them, at the same time so can visitors at the useum.
Clouds are indicators of wind patterns, which scientists want to know more about. Instead of being like earth with its equator toward the sun, Uranus rotates on its side, always pointing one or the other pole toward the sun. This makes for not only a midnight sun of about 50 years, but probably some pretty strange weather.
Although Voyager makes its closest approach to the planet at 1 this Friday afternoon, sweeping to within 50,000 miles, experiments may keep Voyager from getting back to us immediately. In addition, there's a lag time: It takes a signal two hours and 45 minutes to cross the 1.7 billion miles between Uranus and earth.
Expect the closeups this Saturday, Sunday and Monday, says curator Tom Watters, who confirms that "the rings are really nice."
"Live" transmission is a first for the museum, which previously has waited for NASA press packages. These images are cleaner, and, says Watters, "They're more fun to look at. It's a more immediate feeling -- you're not looking at a previewed, edited version."
The museum's monitors will be running at two locations: in the South Lobby by Independence Avenue, and in the "Exploring the Planets" gallery. Although the planet is a lovely blue-green, the transmission is in living black and white.
VOYAGER ENCOUNTERS URANUS -- At the Air & Space Museum through February, or until Voyager stops sending pictures.