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1:07 PM Fri, Sept. 21st

Mars gazer talks red planet

Ken Herkenhoff drew a crowd of 60 curious astronomers to the Prescott Public Library on Thursday night. (Tom Scanlon/The Daily Courier)

Ken Herkenhoff drew a crowd of 60 curious astronomers to the Prescott Public Library on Thursday night. (Tom Scanlon/The Daily Courier)

For the star-gazing crowd, Ken Herkenhoff is something of a rock star - Mars rocks, that is.

Herkenhoff drew a crowd of 60 curious astronomers to the Prescott Public Library on Thursday night. He talked about being in the NASA control room for the Mars Curiosity mission.

Curiosity is a rover that was launched on a spacecraft in November 2011. Herkenhoff, a USGS scientist now based in Flagstaff, showed video of Curiosity landing on Mars nine months later.

For Herkenhoff, the landing was thrilling - and nerve-wracking. He was funded by a grant to help analyze the data that Curiosity would be sending back for years, if all went well.

"I was thinking, 'If this thing fails, I'm really in trouble - I may have to go study fish or something,'" Herkenhoff said.

But the landing went smoothly, and soon enough Curiosity was working away, moving around to key areas, drilling holes, analyzing the red planet's surface and sub-surface.

U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Facebook post, Aug. 2012:

"In Ken Herkenhoff's latest update from NASA's Mars Curiosity control room, he talks about receiving the first ChemCam data for analyzing the chemistry of rocks and soil ..."

The rover, armed with a multi-million dollar "science payload," found the surface temperature of Mars during the day to be not too bad, just below freezing. At night? A pretty chilly minus 131 degrees.

Herkenhoff said Curiosity drilled below the surface, finding clay - an indication water was once present.

Ancient Mars rivers, he said, "were so Earth-like you probably could have drank the water."

Additionally, all the "key chemicals for life are present" on Mars, Herkenhoff said.

"What happened to the water?" an audience member asked.

Herkenhoff answered that no one knows, for sure, but Mars experts suspect a loss of gravity led to the water being lost.

Another audience member pondered the similarities between Mars' past and our present, and pondered, "Is that where Earth is going?"

"It could be," Herkenhoff answered. "There probably were oceans on Mars that evaporated into space. But that's unlikely to happen here because the gravity on Earth is greater.

"It could happen, but Earth probably will not be cold and dry - not as cold and dry as Mars."

He conjectured that, due to the "greenhouse effect," Earth becoming ultra-hot like Venus is "more likely than cold and dry."

On a warm day on Venus, the temperature gets well above 800 degrees.

If all goes well tonight, Prescott stargazers will look far beyond our planetary neighbors.

Tonight, the Prescott Astronomy Club hosts "Starry Nights at Vista Park." Club members will bring out their hardware - impressive telescopes that can gaze deep into space.

If the skies are clear, the big scopes will dial into the Andromeda Galaxy, Ring Nebula, Pinwheel Galaxy, Dumbbell Nebula, ET Cluster, Blue Snowball and stars galore.

The event is open to all and free.

For more information, see prescottastronomyclub.org.

Follow Tom Scanlon on Twitter @tomscanlonpress.