Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Ring of Fire Solar Eclipse Coming

Hey Space Placers!

Get out those calendars and mark them for May 20th, 2012 - the date of an annular eclipse of the Sun. In an annular eclipse the New Moon cannot completely cover the Sun so a "ring of fire" - actually just the Sun's surface that is not eclipsed - is seen.

The viewing area for the eclipse is primarily the western U.S. and all of the details can be seen here: http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2012/27jan_annulareclipse/.

I travelled to Michigan from VA and back the SAME DAY - about 20 hours total, to see my first ever eclipse back in 1994. It was pretty impressive and I had to find a hole in the clouds as my first site was great until clouds started moving in less than an hour to go. I took down all of my equipment and searched for a spot free of clouds. I got set up just as the eclipse began. I have slides of that eclipse.

I haven't decided if I am going to drive for this one....may wait for the total solar eclipse that occurs in 2017  with the centerline through Georgia.

We were clouded out last night at GMU for the most part. Had some holes that our 20-30 guests were able to see the Moon and Jupiter through.

Sky Guy in VA

Monday, January 30, 2012

GMU Observatory Public Observing session

Hey Space Placers!

Come out to GMU tonight, 1/30/12 at 6:30 and look at Venus, the Moon and Jupiter.

Check out the latest http://physics.gmu.edu/~hgeller/observing.html

C U there!

Sky Guy in VA

Sunday, January 29, 2012

New Space Weather Capability

Hey Space Placers!

I think the civilized world (anyone with Internet/TV) learned this week that space weather exists and the Sun does impact our daily lives. This awareness was due to a large solar flare and resulting coronal mass ejection (see my blogs this past week) that generated the most powerful solar radiation storm since 2005.

Our modern infrastructure - GPS, communications, satellites, power grid, and astronauts can all be effected by space weather. The Sun is showing signs of solar maximum activity with this week's events, and we have at least another 20 months to predicted maximum.

The good news is that we have a fleet of new spacecraft that gives us far better technical capability AND 24x7 and 360 degree coverage. SDO, SOHO and STEREO A and B now monitor the Sun simultaneously with multiple instruments and the latter two can even be the far side of the Sun so we can see what is coming.

All of this technical capability/data needs methods to interpret and thereby forecast what the acquired data means to our space weather. There is good news here as well - NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) has the Space Weather Laboratory (SWL) working to develop the methods necessary to predict space weather.

From NASA GSFC's press release: "Goddard’s Space Weather Laboratory recently received support under NASA’s Space Technology Program Game Changing Program to implement “ensemble forecasting,” a computer technique already used by meteorologists to track potential paths and impacts of hurricanes andother severe weather events. Instead of analyzing one set of solar-storm conditions, as is the case now, Goddard forecasters will be able to simultaneously produce asmany as 100 computerized forecasts by calculating multiple possible conditions or, in the parlance of heliophysicists, parameters. "

"Just as important, they will be able to do this quickly and use the information to provide alerts of space weather storms that could potentially be harmful to astronauts and NASA spacecraft. “Space weather alerts are available now, but we want to make them better,” said Michael Hesse, chief of Goddard’s Space Weather Laboratory and the recently named director of the Center’s Heliophysics Science Division. “Ensemble forecasting will provide a distribution of arrival times, which will improve the reliability of forecasts. This is important. Society is relying more so than ever on space. Communications, navigation, electrical-power generation, all are all susceptible to space weather.” Once it’s implemented, “there will be nothing like this in the world. No one has done ensemble forecasting for space weather.”

In closing from GSFC SWL, "When this forecasting technique is verified and validated by NASA’s
Space Weather Laboratory, the capability will be made available to NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, which is responsible for issuing national space weather alerts. NASA’s goal to understand and track space weather activity will enable a greatly enhanced forecasting capability for U.S. interests."

So, as the Sun proceeds towards solar maximum, we will monitor the Sun and refine our ability to forecast the space weather that results. 

Sky Guy in VA

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Sun Unleashes X Class Solar Flare!

Hey Space Placers!

The Sun got our attention this week with the M9 class solar flare blown out on the 23rd by Sunspot 1402. Well, bad boy 1402 blew another blast into space on the 27th, an X Class - the highest class of solar flare, - see the videos below. Fortunately 1402 was facing away from our planet so the effect was minimal, but it does give us notice that the Sun is becoming more active. It is almost a sure bet that more solar activity is coming our way as we head to solar maximum next year.

X Class solar flare on January 27 videos: http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=178940655546787 and http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=YzDH6is924Y

Here is a NASA video that explains solar flares: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8h1_QI8EboA. It gives good information on what I think will become a fairly regular event for the next 20 months or so.

Tomorrow I will have more on the Sun.

Sky Guy in VA

Friday, January 27, 2012

Lest We Forget - Apollo 1, Challenger, Columbia

Hey Space Placers!

This time every year I remind my readers of the 17 American astronauts that gave their lives in the pursuit of spaceflight. The crews of Apollo 1, Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia were killed on January 27, 1967, January 28, 1986, and February 1, 2003.

Apollo1 was on the launch pad in a full dress rehearsal when fire broke out in the Command Module and suffocated Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. Challenger was in flight and exploded 73 seconds after liftoff while Columbia disintegrated on re-entry.

In each instance the cause of the disaster was found, fixed and as a result, made the successive flights safer. But we cannot forget that these lessons learned were at the cost of human lives. Today we see how an ocean liner can take lives in this modern age 100 years after the sinking of the Titanic.

Spaceflight and space exploration are a risky business. But the rewards of discovery  and furthering human knowledge are worth the risk. A new generation spacecraft - Orion - will need a new generation of astronauts willing to take the risks in he rent in their job. We can try to take as much risk as possible out of the equation but it will always be there.

Humanity needs to leave this planet to explore and colonize new worlds in our solar system, and perhaps someday, other planetary systems. To not do so, dooms the fate of mankind.

With each new mission and step forward, let us always remember those who gave their lives exploring the find frontier.

Read More About It: http://www.nasa.gov/externalflash/dor12/

Sky Guy in VA

Thursday, January 26, 2012


Hey Space Placers!

The waxing crescent Moon complete with earthsine will be just above Venus tonight right at dusk. As soon as it starts to get dark go out and face the west and you will see the two brightest objects in our night sky. This celestial duo is ALWAYS a beautiful sight to see so make it a point to get out and enjoy the view.

Mount your camera on a tripod and take some pictures. ISO 200-400 is a good setting and 1-3 seconds should capture the scene perfectly. Try a longer exposure to get the earthshine.

Get a good pic send it to me and we can share with others. The Washington D.C. area will most likely be raining so we will have to wait until next month.

The stars and constellations of winter are in full view and Jupiter is high in the south and reddish-orange Mars is in the east after 11 p.m.

Enjoy the sky show!

Sky Guy in VA

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Calm After the (Solar) Storm

Hey Space Placers!

The strong solar radiation storm and large CME (see my 1-24-12 post) have come and gone. The media response was superb as here in DC I did radio and TV segments and the printed media had good, solid stories. So a lot of people now know our Sun can have an impact on their lives and space weather matters.  

There were some flight diversions around the polar regions and the auroras lit up the Arctic Circle but I have not read about any satellite, GPS, power grid or communication disruptions. It might have been different if the CME had been a direct hit instead of a glancing blow.

I have read some opinions that the upcoming/ongoing solar maximum may be an active one. If so, there is a good possibility that the Northern Lights - aurora - will make it down to the lower latitudes in the northern hemisphere. This happened last October when auroras made it down to Atlanta and Florida!

I have seen the Northern Lights twice in my life, once in Minnesota and once in Virginia. The Virginia episode was during the last solar maximum and I have included the picture that I took out in a decent dark sky site west of Washington, DC. As you can see this particular appearance had a definite red tint to it. I took it on October 30, 2003.

The place to check on aurora visibility is here: http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/pmap/index.html. Regardless of your location, you can see if the aurora cone encompasses your location. If it does, I would be outside when it is dark and looking north!

What surprised (and pleased) me a bit was that I read or heard of no doomsayers picking up on this perfectly normal and natural event to tie it in to "the 2012 End of the World" nonsense.

We'll be watching the space weather as we do our Earth-bound weather and will issue a "Sky Guy VIEWING ALERT" if the auroras come our lower latitude way!

Sky Guy in VA

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Solar Radiation Storm Underway

Hey Space Placers!

At about 11 pm EST on January 22, 2012, Sunspot 1402 experienced a M9 class solar flare. This is just below the highest X class of solar flare. This solar flare unleashed at least a billion megatons of TNT equivalent in energy, reached millions of degrees in temperature and produced a coronal mass ejection (CME) that erupted off the Sun and headed for Earth and Mars.

This solar flare event has produced the strongest solar radiation storm since 2005. The storm began almost immediately as radiation from the event reached Earth. The CME is traveling at 1400 miles per second and has taken some time to travel the 93 million miles from the Sun to the Earth.

Sunspot 1402 M9 Solar Flare Event as Seen by Solar Dynamics Observatory

Solar flares erupt when magnetic fields that occur in sunspots get twisted and the energy stored in these magnetic fields is suddenly released. These events are the largest explosions in the solar system. CME's are sometimes created by a solar flare and are huge bubbles of gas threaded with magnetic file lines. They blow off of the Sun for several hours and head out into space.

This solar radiation storm is a class S3, which is a "strong" solar radiation storm (SRS) classification; the scale goes to S5 which is an "extreme" solar radiation storm and can have significant effects on spacecraft and here on Earth. Read More About the Scale: http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/NOAAscales/index.html#SolarRadiationStorms

An S3 SRS can affect spacecraft in orbit and everyday items such as GPS, the electrical power grid and communications. The astronauts on the International Space Station are safe and have procedures and the ability to "shelter in place" if required.

We all know Earth has weather, but this event brings home the fact that we are affected by "space weather"  as well. Just as it does here on Earth, the Sun powers space weather. We also have dedicated space weather professionals, who just like their terrestrial meteorological counterparts, monitor space weather 24x7.

In fact, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the government agency that is responsible for the National Weather Service (NWS), has under the auspices of the NWS, a Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/.

While the solar radiation storm is still occurring but subsiding, the CME ejected by the Sun is predicted to hit Earth at 9 am EST January 24, 2012. According to the SPWC, "The SWPC forecast is for Moderate (G2) level geomagnetic storming with G3 levels possible.  An animation from the WSA-Enlil model showing the Coronal Mass Ejection and its trip from the Sun to the Earth is available here.   Updates will be posted here as we learn more or follow us on Facebook."

There is no danger to us or the astronauts from this SRS and CME event. These events are likely to occur more frequently and perhaps get even stronger as the Sun nears Solar Maximum, currently predicted to occur in 2013-2014. This is an 11 year cycle that the Sun goes through in which sunspots, solar flares and associated events undergo a minimum phase that builds to a maximum phase and then back to minimum. This is a normal part of our star's life cycle and with the fleet of spacecraft we now have monitoring the Sun we are better equipped than ever to monitor our space weather and be warned of significant events.

Read More About It: http://www.myfoxdc.com/dpp/news/strongest-solar-storm-since-2005-hitting-earth-012312  and http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/sunearth/news/News012312-M8.7.html

Sky Guy in VA

Monday, January 23, 2012

Sunday, January 22, 2012

What's Up With Snow This Winter???

Hey Space Placers!

With the Washington, D.C. area experiencing its first true taste of winter and other places facing snow droughts or extremes , I thought the following NASA Science story would be of interest. What had been predicted to be almost no snow on this past Friday turned into a "the road is completely covered and we are in heavy snow" event as I was traveling  Route 29 south. Was interesting to say the least for awhile.

Read More About It: http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2012/17jan_missingsnow/

I am of the opinion, my own of course, that the climate of our planet is changing. The documented loss of ice and glacier cover plus the number of severe weather events happening has convinced me. Yes, I think it is global warming and yes, I think it is man-made. But, the planet has undergone periods of climatic change long before there was an industrial revolution so the jury is still out I believe as to where this will all lead.

Sky Guy in Snowy VA

Saturday, January 21, 2012

World's Newest Mars Rock

Hey Space Placers!

The newest invader from Mars has been confirmed. A huge fireball that was observed last summer falling over Morocco turned into a successful hunt for the meteorite(s) that were thought to have survived the trip through Earth's atmosphere.  What made this meteorite discovery even more special was the origin of the found 15 pounds of space rocks - Mars.

Earth is hit probably every single day by meteorites. With Earth being 75% covered by water, it is little wonder that we find so few. When a suspected space rock is found it must be confirmed by scientific analysis before it can be truly declared to be a space rock or meteorite. In the case of this meteorite it is a very rare find - a Mars meteorite that was observed to fall to Earth in that blazing fireball event last July. Such meteorite "falls" do not occur very often. Meteorites are usually the result of a "find" - an event when a suspected space rock is found and submitted for confirming analysis. This is only the fifth time in history that a Mars fall has occurred.

On Earth we have about 240 pounds of Mars in our collective possession. I have 5 pieces of Mars in my meteorite collection and they look very, very different  than my lunar and asteroid meteorites. They look almost greenish-gray and very alien......unlike anything I have seen on Earth.

With it being unlikely that we will get to Mars with a sample return mission anytime soon, these meteorites are our best bet to study the Red Planet through actual samples. We have been studying Mars from afar first with our telescopes, then by our flyby and orbital missions and now with our Mars Rovers and soon with Mars Scientific Laboratory Curiosity.

One Martian Meteorite really stirred the pot here on Earth back in the '90's when it was announced that life had been found in the interior of ALH-84001. This incredible announcement is still being debated in science circles that study meteorites and astrobiology. It is still undecided if this meteorite contains fossils from Mars or can be explained using more conventional means. Maybe Curiosity will help tip the scales one way or another.

Read More About It: http://www.physorg.com/news/2012-01-mars-fell-africa-july.html

Mars rocks fell in Africa last July
This handout photo provided by Darryl Pitt of the Macovich Collection shows an external view of a Martian meteorite recovered in December 2011 near Foumzgit, Morocco following a meteorite shower believed to have occurred in July 2011.

Mars is getting bright in the night sky, rising in the east at about 11 p.m. It looks orangish-red and is easy to spot due to its' color and brightness. Take a look at Mars and if you get a chance look at it with a telescope. The polar cap is prominent as are main features. We are entering a major new phase of exploration of the Red Planet this year with Curiosity. I think it will be very, very interesting.

Sky Guy in VA

Friday, January 20, 2012

Death of a Sun Grazing Comet

Hey Space Placers!

With Comet Lovejoy's amazing story Sun grazing comets took center stage for our collective and riveted attention. But astronomers have been studying this class of comet for years thanks to SOHO - the Solar Heliospheric Observatory. SOHO has discovered over 2,000 of these objects and has observed their literal comings and goings, and in some instances, death.

NASA has released an amazing SOHO video which shows an incoming Sun grazing comet that actually passes between the Sun and Earth ( a first-ever witnessed event) and dies right before our eyes. The comet is seen to evaporate literally and in the process has taught us much about the comet and this class of object. This was the fate that almost everyone thought would befall Comet Lovejoy - but didn't.

By adding the knowledge from these two Sun grazing cometary events together we will get additional valuable knowledge that we can apply to not only these Sungrazers, but all comets in general.

Read More About It: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/sunearth/news/comet-death.html

and here (this just in) http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2012/20jan_cometcorpse/

SOHO coronographic image of sun grazing comet seen on July 5 and 6, 2011.

Sky Guy in VA

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Montana Students Name Twin Moon Probes

Hey Space Placers!

Yesterday, Jan. 17, NASA announced the new names for GRAIL A & B, now in lunar orbit. A contest for school kids was begun last October to name the twin lunar spacecraft and a class from Bozeman, Montana, came up with the winning names: Ebb and Flow.

From the NASA press release: "The names were submitted by fourth graders from the Emily Dickinson Elementary School. Nearly 900 classrooms with more than 11,000 students from 45 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia participated in the contest. Previously named Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory, or GRAIL-A and -B, the washing machine-sized spacecraft begin science operations in March, after a launch in September 2011. 

"The 28 students of Nina DiMauro's class at the Emily Dickinson Elementary School have really hit the nail on the head," said Maria Zuber, GRAIL principal investigator from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. "We were really impressed that the students drew their inspiration by researching GRAIL and its goal of measuring gravity. Ebb and Flow truly capture the spirit and excitement of our mission."

Ebb and Flow are also "NASA's first planetary mission carrying instruments fully dedicated to education and public outreach. Each spacecraft carries a small camera called GRAIL MoonKAM (Moon Knowledge Acquired by Middle school students). Thousands of students in grades five through eight will select target areas on the lunar surface and send requests for study to the GRAIL MoonKAM Mission Operations Center in San Diego. The winning prize for the Dickinson students is to choose the first camera images. Dickinson is one of nearly 2,000 schools registered for the MoonKAM program.

Contests and science participation such as this is fuel for the future. These students will be able to use the MoonKAM to pick a scientific point of interest, photograph it, analyze the results and write up their results. Kids just do not get enough opportunity to think, imagine and explore....Ebb and Flow can help them to do so.

Read More About It: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.cfm?release=2012-015.

Sky Guy in VA

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Comet Lovejoy via NASA

Hey SPace Placers!

Here is a NASA story about Comet Lovejoy that provides a good summary of what transpired and what still perplexes: http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2012/12jan_cometlovejoy/

The Comet is now fading back into the deep recesses of the solar system. What a comet Lovejoy was. It will be interesting to see what does out of all the data.

Sky Guy in VA

Monday, January 16, 2012

My Night Under the Stars

Hey Space Placers!

Last night, 1/15-16, I took out my 10-inch Takahashi Mewlon 250 telescope and Nikon D 5000 camera. The night promised to be clear and cold and delivered on both. I had viewed the Sun earlier in the day and saw two sunspots coming over the Sun's eastern limb that had been reported to be active. The seeing - steadiness of the atmosphere - was lousy so I didn't take any pics.

As darkness and the temp fell, I started out by viewing Venus. Again, the seeing wasn't that good butI took a few pics. Venus is featureless to the eye and was in a gibbous phase. I then looked at Jupiter which had all 4 moons present and took a few pics with somewhat better seeing.

I then viewed the great nebula in Orion, M-42, through the camera only and took two pics - one at 30 seconds so I could capture the heart of the nebula, the famous Trapezium cluster of 4 new O-B stars that illuminate the nebula and a longer one of 60 seconds to capture fainter details of this great stellar nursery. I have posted them here for you to see.

Orion Nebula 30 seconds

Orion Nebula 60 seconds

I then took pics of some of the brightest stars in the sky - Sirius and Beteleguese, and some star clusters.

Mars, Saturn and the Moon were well up in the sky so I looked at them. The view of Mars was the best I have ever seen with my own eyes. I could see the polar cap, some markings - it is easy to see why astronomers in the 1800's thought Mars had canals - and the rust color. The view is only going to get better as we get closer to March when Mars is closest in this current cycle so I didn't take any pics.

Saturn was a delight as I could see bands on the planet similar to those of Jupiter, the planet's shadow on the face of the planet and of course the gorgeous rings. I saw the famous Cassini Division and traced the rings quite easily around the planet.

The Moon was just after last quarter and was full of craters and shadows along the terminator. I took some pics but will have to work on them to clean them up. The seeing wasn't that great for [ics but was great for visual observing.

The temp got to my camera battery and my feet as it gout down to an icy 16 degrees. The Mewlon's tube was coated with ice as was the tripod. The eyepieces were so cold that just getting close to them to view would cause them to fog up for a bit.

I could hear geese on the nearby lake and howls of dogs and perhaps the whiff of a skunk someplace. The sky and Earth were quiet in the cold darkness before dawn and I took in the view of the sky in the east and saw Vega of summer fame. The spring star Arcturus was high overhead and reminded me that the seasons come and go no matter what occurs in human affairs.

A last glimpse of the stars and I thought of all the planets that exist around them. I wondered if anyone was looking at their sky on those worlds.

Sky Guy in VA 

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Sky Watch Bonanza

Hey Space Placers!

Every clear night there is a patrol of the night skies for hazardous asteroids conducted by telescopes. The Catalina Sky Survey (CSS) is operated by the University of Arizona and the California Institute of Technology.

Patrolling the skies by taking hundreds of wide field photographs each night allows the astronomers to scan these photos for moving asteroids. Thousands of asteroids have been found but so have other sky events such as supernovas, variable stars and other brightening-dimming events.

As reported by a University of Arizona press release: "Using images obtained by the UA's asteroid-hunting Catalina Sky Survey, the Catalina Real-Time Transient Survey, or CRTS, lets CalTech astronomers systematically scan the heavens for these dynamic objects, resulting in an unprecedented data set that will allow scientists worldwide to pursue new research. The new data set is based on observations taken with the 0.7-meter telescope on Mt. Bigelow in Arizona. The observations were part of the Catalina Sky Survey, a search for Near-Earth Objects, or NEOs – asteroids that may pose a threat to Earth –conducted by astronomers at the UA. By repeatedly taking pictures of large swaths of the sky and comparing these images to previous ones, the CRTS is able to monitor the brightness of about half-billion objects, allowing it to search for those that dramatically brighten or dim. In this way, the CRTS team identified tens of thousands of variables, maximizing the science that can be gleaned from the original data.The new data set contains the so-called brightness histories of a total of 200 million stars and other objects, incorporating more than 20 billion independent measurements."

In essence these photos allow astronomers to mine the sky images for transient events and provide an invaluable snapshot of a particular region of the sky on a specific date and time. This comes in very handy if some new astronomical event occurs in the future and we want to know what the sky looked like before in that same spot.

Every clear night will only add to this treasure trove of data. Read More About It: http://uanews.org/node/43845.

Sky Guy in VA

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Got 7 Minutes?

Hey Space Placers!

I found this OUTSTANDING video from NASA on the Orion manned spacecraft - "Orion: From Factory to Flight". The video shows many aspects of the testing and building of America's next generation manned spaceflight vehicle.

One aspect of Orion that is unique from all other American manned spacecraft is that Orion is designed to go to multiple destinations. Orion is built to go beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO) but can operate inLEO. Coupled with the appropriate launch vehicle configuration (yet to be built) Orion can go to the Moon, asteroids and Mars orbit. That is very impressive when you consider that each prior spacecraft - Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Space Shuttle - had a singular purpose/destination.

The first Orion unmanned spaceflight is set for sometime 2014. The last water drop tests have been completed at NASA Langley, VA - see photo below -  and work is going forward on other flight test/manufacture milestones.

I so wanted us to return to the Moon's surface again but I look forward to seeing astronauts on their way to someplace other than LEO someday.

Got 7 minutes? You owe it to yourself to see this video and then dream a little of the future while watching the night sky with the Moon and planets beckoning us.

See the Video: http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/videogallery/index.html?collection_id=64681&media_id=125642591

Orion test article water landing drop test - Jan. 06, 2012

Sky Guy in VA

Friday, January 13, 2012

Tiny Solar System Discovered

Hey Space Placers!

To follow up on our planet-per-star- blog yesterday, NASA's planet hunting Kepler spacecraft  has found the smallest solar system yet. Named KOI-961, this system is comprised of a red dwarf star and three rocky planets that are smaller than our Earth with one being about the size of Mars.

The planetary trio is too close to their star to be in the habitable zone - the zone around a star that would allow for liquid water to exist and therefore the possibility of life as we know it. But it is exciting to know that a star that is only about 70 % larger than Jupiter can have planets.

Astronomers are comparing KOI-961 to Jupiter and its four main moons as far as being similar in nature and size except for the fact that KOI-961 is a red dwarf star. Finding rocky planets is another big plus in the quest for finding that "Earth-like" planet out there.

Read More About It: http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2012/11jan_smallestexoplanets/

Smallest Exoplanets (concept, 558px)

Sky Guy in VA

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Every Star in Our Galaxy Has Planets

Hey Space Placers!

I have long uspected that planets were a natural byproduct more often than not of stellar formation. It just made sense - we're here aren't we with a teeming solar system full of asteroids, comets, dwarf planets and 8 major ones. Oh, and I suspect that life exists "out there" in our solar system as well as on the 100 BILLION planets that are estimated, at a MINIMUM, to exist in our Milky Way Galaxy.

That is the conclusion - every star in our galaxy has planets - of a major statistical study recently completed. This same study estimates that there are 1,500 planets within 50 light years of Earth. Just think, when we go outside at night and look at the stars, we can now imagine planets orbitng them and contemplate if life there is looking back. It is also estimated that smaller planets are more populous than larger ones so perhaps our own solar system is a good rendition of how a solar system might evolve around a G class star like our Sun.

Of course one can now extrapolate that every other galaxy out there has to have a planet associated with each one of its stars. So, there are billions upon billions of galaxies, some with hundreds and hundreds of billions of stars which means that there is at a minimum one planet per star.

Hmmmm, I think we live in a very planet populated Universe and we just cannot be the only planet pondering planetary perplexities.

Read More About It: http://hubblesite.org/news/2012/07

Sky Guy in VA

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Take a Look!!!

Hey Space Placers!

NASA released an image taken of the well known constellations of Cassiopeia and Cepheus that looks nothing like what we see with our unaided eye, or through a telescope for that matter. The image was obtained by NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE and comprises a 1,000 square degree field of view. 

This region of the sky can be seen in the northern section of the sky when it gets dark and tendrils of the Milky Way can be seen going through these constellations from a dark sky site. In the WISE view the    stars of the two constellations cannot be readily seen but the magnificent infra red wavelength and corresponding false color panorama is quite a sight to see. Young stars and the clouds of gas and dust that they are born from are visible as is a famous supernova remnant.

You have to witness the photograph in full resolution to gain its true beauty and value: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/WISE/multimedia/pia15256.html

Sky Guy in VA
Section of the Milky Way galaxy

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Dark Matter Mapped

Hey Space Placers!

It is hard to imagine that when we look around on our planet, at ourselves, and up at the day and night sky, that everything we see is avery small percentage of the total mass of the Universe. Most of the Universe is comprised of Dark Energy which is forcing the Universe to expand at an ever increasing rate and Dark Matter - matter that we know is there but cannot see. Only 4 percent of the Universe is made up of ordinary matter - the atoms that comprise stars, planets and us!

We know Dark Matter exists because of the gravitational affect it has on that 4% of ordinary matter. The stars in our Milky Way Galaxy orbit faster than they should when taking into account all of the visible matter. Other galaxies do the same all as a result of some unseen matter.

Astronomers have estimated that 23% of the Universe is comprised of Dark Matter and 73% is Dark Energy with our ordinary atoms/matter filling in the remaining 4%. Astronomers have recently been able to map the distribution of Dark Matter on the largest scale to dat and the resulting picture is very telling:

The observations show that dark matter in the Universe is distributed as a network of gigantic dense (white) and empty (dark) regions, where the largest white regions are about the size of several Earth moons on the sky. Credit: Van Waerbeke, Heymans, and CFHTLens collaboration.

This incredible picture is the result of five years' work observing 10 million galaxies in four sections of the sky and computer analysis. The light from the galaxies located at a distance of six billion light years, was bent by Dark Matter that lie between us and the galaxies. The Universe was half its current age when the light from these galaxies was emitted.

Plans are already underway to expand the survey to cover an area 10 times larger and thereby provide an even greater understanding of the distribution of Dark Matter.

Read More About It: http://www.cfhtlens.org/ and http://www.cfht.hawaii.edu/en/news/CFHTLens/.

Sky Guy in VA

Monday, January 9, 2012

Mars Discovery

Hey Space Placers!

Continuing our impact related theme of the past two days, a new discovery has been made on Mars that incoming meteors large enough to create craters are also causing dust avalanches. The avalanches are caused by the shockwave that precedes the incoming impactor which is traveling at several times the speed of sound. Because the Martian atmosphere is not as dense as Earth's, a lot of meteors that would burn up in our atmosphere survive on Mars to create new craters.

From the University of Arizona Press Release, "Each year, about 20 fresh craters between 1 and 50 meters (3 to 165 feet) show up in images taken by the HiRISE camera on board NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE, is operated by the UA’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and has been photographing the Martian surface since 2006, revealing features down to less than 1 meter in size. For this study, the team zoomed in on a cluster of five large craters, which all formed in one impact event close to Mars’ equator, about 825 kilometers (512 miles) south of the boundary scarp of Olympus Mons, the tallest mountain in the solar system. Previous observations by the Mars Global Surveyor orbiter, which imaged Mars for nine years until 2006, showed that this cluster was blasted into the dusty surface between May 2004 and February 2006."

In looking at the HiRise images of the crater cluster there were a large number of dust avalanches observed, over 64,000. The "ah-hah!" moment came when one photo showed a pair of scimitar-shaped features were seen which were subsequently shown to precisely fit computer models of the blast wave.


Read More About It: http://uanews.org/node/43798.

Sky Guy in VA

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Vesta Meteorites Literally Blast Off for Earth

Hey Space Placers!

To follow up on yesterday's blog on Mercurian Meteorites, I thought I would provide some information on how meteorites from Vesta, the second largest asteroid and the object of the Dawn mission until this July, got to Earth.

Dawn has given us the ability to try and pinpoint the origin point of Vesta meteorites (I own a few Vesta samples myself) through the close up photographs and scientific data that has been acquired since last summer.

The prime suspect is a 13 MILE high mountain, that is 2 1/2 times taller than Mt. Everest by the way, located at the south polar region of Vesta. This huge feature is thought to be the result of a great impact event that hurled impact ejecta to form the mountain and launch debris into space.

Mission scientists want to get an age for the mountain as well as its chemical composition and then compare this to meteorites thought to be from Vesta. Dawn gives us the best opportunity we have to prove this match up and then use the meteorites to learn more about Vesta. Vesta Meteorites are a free sample return "mission" that provide valuable and otherwise unobtainable data sources.

Read More About It: http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2011/30dec_spacemountain/

Space Mountain (side view, 558px)

Sky Guy in VA

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Meteorites From Mercury - Where Are They?

Hey Space Placers!

Some of you may have read my profile and know I collect meteorites. I have been doing so for over a decade but my interest in rocks from space goes back to 1968 when I first saw Meteor Crater in Arizona and walked down what is now Astronaut Trail.

I have studied meteorites and impacts extensively, especially our very own Chesapeake Bay Impact Crater, 6th largest in the world and 58 miles in diameter located at Cape Charles, VA. We have over 53,000 classified meteorites in the world and dozens from the Moon and Mars, and Vesta.

We were able to classify the Moon and Mars meteorites after we landed on the Moon with the Apollo missions and  then on Mars with Viking 1 and 2 back in 1976. We confirmed rocks from Vesta due to detailed spectroscopic observations of the second largest asteroid in the solar system and Dawn is helping to pinpoint possible craters that could be the origin point.

It is interesting to note that we had the lunar and martian samples in our possession for some time before we could classify their origin. Meteorites must undergo scientific examination and classification in order to be classified as a meteorite. The lunar and martian meteorites, as well as those of Vesta, had unique characteristics - different from other meteorites. We couldn't classify them, although it was suspected where they came from, until we had the scientific data from actual samples and observations.

With MESSENGER in orbit around Mercury and gathering great quantities of data, the question has arisen as to "where are the meteorites from Mercury"? It is thought that somewhere on Earth we should have samples from the planet closest to the Sun but so far their discovery has eluded us. I personally am aware of one meteorite called NWA 011 that for a time was thought to be a potential Mercurian meteorite but that still remains to be seen.

There is a great article about this intriguing question in Sky & Telescope online: http://www.skyandtelescope.com/community/skyblog/newsblog/Wanted-Meteorites-from-Mercury-136803313.html

Fresh crater on Mercury

I think someday, now that we have MESSENGER's data about Mercury, we will find a match of the planet's characteristics and a space rock here on Earth.  What a day that will be in the history of meteorites and planetary study.

Sky Guy in VA 

Friday, January 6, 2012

Mars Rover Opportunity Picks Winter Haven

Hey Space Placers!

Our remaining Mars Rover Opportunity is preparing to settle in for the Martian Southern Hemisphere winter. Opportunity is still going strong after nearly 8 years on Mars - she landed on January 24, 2004; her twin rover Spirit succumbed to the harsh winter last year and is no longer operating.

Opportunity will settle in on the rim of an eroded crater wall that will enable her to face the Sun with her dust coated solar panels to get maximum power. As an added bonus Opportunity will be able to explore some rock layers while wintering which will add to our knowledge of the Red Planet. The area is known to be an older formation which will provide valuable geologic information.

Read More About It: http://asunews.asu.edu/20120105_greeley_haven

Greeley Haven

Sky Guy in VA 

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Voyager 1 Update

Hey Space Placers!

Voyager 1, one of two intrepid spacecraft that are destined to leave our solar system and wonder interstellar space for eternity, has continued to send back data. Results from the past year indicate that Voyager 1 is entering a previously unknown area that marks a stagnation region and may be the last stop before true interstellar space begins.

Voyager 1 is 11 billion miles from her home star, the Sun and is still influenced by the stream of solar particles and the magnetic field lines of the solar system. But at some important point Voyager 1 will break free and truly be among the stars.

Read More About It: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.cfm?release=2011-372
Artist concept of Voyager 1 encountering a stagnation region

Sky Guy in VA

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

New Telescope???

Hey Space Placers!

Did Santa bring you a new telescope for Christmas? Or have you ever wondered what you can see with a small telescope? Sky and Telescope Magazine has put together a top notch guide for new telescope users - http://www.skyandtelescope.com/about/pressreleases/136384853.html.

Telescopes today are very reasonable as to price, quality and user friendliness. You can get telescopes that are easy to set up, align and control by computer. The views of the Moon, Jupiter and its four main moons, Mars when close to Earth, Saturn's rings, Venus and her phases, galaxies, star clusters, double stars, nebulae - well, the list is literally endless.

Buying a quality telescope from a reputable dealer has never been easier. I also advise shoppers to "test drive" a potential telescope before they buy it - is it easy to store, carry and set up? Can it support your ability to grow into taking pictures/videos or doing long term observing projects?

If you buy quality it will last a lifetime. My last telescope was with me for over 20 years and had travelled around the globe before I donated it to George Mason Astronomy - it is now teaching high school students!

Buy a good 'scope and learn to use it and you will be hooked on seeing the Universe with your own eyes.

Sky Guy in VA

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Sky Guy Viewing ALERT: Jan 3-4 Meteor Shower

Hey Space Placers!!

Bundle up and put the hot chocolate on. The Quadrantid Meteor Shower is predicted to peak between 2 and 3 a.m. on the morning of the 4th; the Moon will set at around 3 a.m. so the conditions will be good for the East Coast of the U.S. to see 1 to 2 meteors a minute. You should find a spot free of lights and trees that has a good view of the northeast sky. Keeping warm is a major comfort factor and therefore affects your viewing pleasure so dress in layers and try to keep off the ground by using a reclining chair.

The best time to observe on the U.S. East Coast will be from 3 a.m. to the onset of morning twilight - around 6 a.m. For our international friends, depending on where you are, try to figure out your viewing conditions based on the predicted peak time and your sky-Moon-dawn configuration.

The meteors you will see that are part of the "Quads" trace back to the Constellation Bootes and are from a dead comet-now asteroid just like the Geminids.

Read More ABout It: http://www.skyandtelescope.com/about/pressreleases/136399178.html

Quadrantid meteor finder chart
Sky & Telescope Magazine

Sky Guy in VA

Monday, January 2, 2012

GRAIL A & B In Lunar Orbit!

Hey Space Placers!

Happy New Year! I welcomed in the New Year in Atlanta while seeing my beloved University of Virginia Cavaliers fall to the Auburn Tigers in the 2011 Chick Fill A Bowl. I was without a computer so we were out of touch.

GRAIL A & B are safely in lunar orbit. As reported by NASA, "GRAIL-B achieved lunar orbit at 2:43 p.m. PST (5:43 p.m. EST) January 1st, while GRAIL-A successfully completed its burn December 31st at 2 p.m. PST (5 p.m. EST). The insertion maneuvers placed the spacecraft into a near- polar, elliptical orbit with an orbital period of approximately 11.5 hours. Over the coming weeks, the GRAIL team will execute a series of burns with each spacecraft to reduce their orbital period to just under two hours. At the start of the science phase in March 2012, the two GRAILs will be in a near-polar, near-circular orbit with an altitude of about 34 miles (55 kilometers)."

This latest lunar mission will give us the most detailed data of the Moon's interior by mapping the Moon's gravitational field. The mapping will be accomplished by monitoring the slightest deviations in radio signals that will be constantly transmitting between the two spacecraft. Analyzing these variations in conjunction with the spacecrafts' location will lead to the determination of the composition and structure of the lunar interior. When all of the data from previous and current lunar missions is added we will have a very good data set for our Moon. Right now we know more about Mars than we do our own Moon.

Read More About It: http://moon.mit.edu/ and http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/grail/main/index.html .

I wish everyone a safe, healthy and prosperous New Year. Together we will continue our exploration of the Universe in 2012.

Sky Guy in VA