Elementary Astronomy News Highlights

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Each week in 107-02 we will discuss something interesting that has been in the news. The subjects will be drawn from the New York Times, [http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ Astronomy Picture of the Day], and press releases from NASA, the European Space Agency, the European Southern Observatory, or the Space Telescope Institute. If there is something interesting from one of our telescopes we may tell you about that too. This page has the highlights.

Week of April 9

A new observatory in the Atacama Desert of the Chilean Andes is beginning to observe the early universe through its radio signals. ALMA is designed to detect faint microwaves, red-shifted emission from distant rapidly receding matter. The New York Times describes the recent progress and promise of the facility.


A panoramic view of the Chajnantor plateau showing the antennas of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) ranged across the unearthly landscape.

Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), Tafreshi (ESO/twanight.org)

Week of April 2, 2012

Neutrinos were in the news last week, when the New York Times reported that the experiment reported last year showing them possibly traveling faster than light has been shown to be in error. You can read the article here.


Week of March 26, 2012

The European Southern Observatory's Survey Telescope (VST) with its 268-megapixel camera imaged the Hercules galaxy cluster, 500 million light years away. The VST is a 2.6 meter diameter telescope with an exceptionally large field of view. Located on Cerro Paranal in Chile, it enjoys exceptionally clear and stable skies. The Hercules cluster contains young, star-forming sprial galaxies and many interacting pairs, but no giant elliptical galaxies.


Week of March 19, 2012

The European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope (VLT) captured a stunning image of Messier 95, one of the galaxies in the Leo I group of galaxies. The group gets its name from constellation that we look toward when we see it, although it is 35 million light years away, far beyond the bounds of the Milky Way Galaxy. The brightest star in Leo is Regulus, and it is only 77 light years away.

M95 leo eso potw1212a.jpg

M95 in Leo, 35 million light years (35 x 106 ly) or 11 million parsecs (Mpc) away.


On March 20, 2012, the International Astronomical Union's Central Bureau for Electronic Telegrams announced the discovery of a supernova in M95 by Paolo Fagotti, an amateur astronomer in Italy, taking images with his 0.25 meter (10-inch) diameter telescope. It has been designated Supernova 2012aw, and preliminary spectra suggest it is Type II. Can you spot Supernova 2012aw in this image?

M95 20120316 202322 20 luminance 2 maioni cbet3054.jpg

Credit: Italian Supernova Search Project

Week of March 5, 2012

Young stars in the Orion nebula have been seen to change right before our eyes. The European Space Agency's Herschel Space Observatory and NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope have found colorful specks of light from developing stars rapidly heating up and cooling down in the process of reaching full stellar adulthood in a turbulent cloud of gas and dust. For more information and images, see the press release from the Spitzer Space Telescope or from the Herschel Infrared Space Observatory.

Orion flare stars ssc2012-04 rec.jpg

Week of February 27, 2012

Astronomers using a telescope in Chile discovered "light echos" of eruptions in the double star system Eta Carinae. The events were seen from Earth between 1838 and 1858, when Eta Carinae became the second brightest star in the sky. It is now a faint 8th magnitude. Some light from the eruption scatters off of dust around the star and then reaches us later than the light that comes directly toward us. The scattered "light echo" was analyzed to determine the explosion was unexpectedly cooler than we had predicted. The fate of stars like Eta Carinae is to become a supernova, sending their matter back into space, and seeding the formation of another generation of stars.

Eta-carinae-light-echoes 48643 600x450.jpg
Images courtesy A. Rest, STSI/NASA/NOAO

You can read about the discovery on the National Geographics website, and in Nature.

Week of February 20, 2012

Mars will be in opposition on March 3 this year. It is now rising just a few minutes after sunset, and is visible most of the night. This is how it looked in a small 7-inch diameter telescope at our observatory on Monday morning, February 20.

Mars 20120220 0655ut.jpg

New Moon is on Tuesday this week, and during the week it will grow from a thin crescent on the western horizon at sunset to first quarter Moon, high in the sky at sunset next Tuesday.

Week of February 13, 2012

While really news from last week, it's too good to let this one pass. A large meteorite that fell on Morocco on July 18, 2011, originated on Mars. Ejected by a collision of Mars with another space rock, this one went on a trajectory that eventually ended in the Moroccan desert near Tissint. It was acquired for the Natural History Museum in London, and is the largest martian meteorite in their collection. There is a nice video about it available on their website:

Natural History Musem Video

Tissint-caroline-200-108222-1.jpg Tissint-hand-370-slide 108258 1.jpg

On its way from Mars to the desert and then to the Museum, it made a trip by airplane to New York, took a bicycle ride around Manhattan, and then went as carry-on luggage to Great Britain. The story is in the New York Times for February 9, 2011.

Also this week, an amateur astronomer in Kansas, Fred Bruenjes, discovered a new comet C/2012 C2 (Bruenjes), which you can read about here.

Week of February 6, 2012

The Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) for February 4, 2012, featured Comet Garradd, known officially as C2009/P1, as it appeared in the morning sky in the constellation Hercules on February 3.

C2009P1 garradd 120203small ligustri 900c.jpg
Copyright 2012 Rolando Ligustri

From the APOD description --

The (yellow) dust tail tends to trail the comet along its orbit while the (blue) ion tail, blown by the solar wind, streams away from the comet in the direction opposite the Sun. Of course, M92 is over 25,000 light-years away. Comet Garradd is 12.5 light-minutes from planet Earth, arcing above the ecliptic plane.

You may be able to find the comet with binoculars in a dark morning sky this month. Sky and Telescope provides a map and observing suggestions here:


Week of January 30, 2012

The New York Times reported that a project to search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) has found funding to continue its work, at least for a few months. You can read the full article in the New YorkTimes on line.

Seti nyt 20120130.jpg
Allen Telescope Array

Highlights from the New York Times article --

"Advanced life and technology might be rare in the cosmos, said Geoffrey W. Marcy, the Watson and Marilyn Alberts in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence professor at the University of California, Berkeley, “but surely they are out there, because the number of Earthlike planets in the Milky Way galaxy is simply too great.”

A simple “howdy,” a squeal or squawk, or an incomprehensible stream of numbers captured by one of the antennas here at the University of California’s Hat Creek Radio Observatory would be enough to end our cosmic loneliness and change history, not to mention science. It would answer one of the most profound questions humans ask: Are we alone in the universe?

Despite decades of space probes and billions of NASA dollars looking for life out there, there is still only one example of life in the universe: the DNA-based web of biology on Earth. “In this field,” said Jill Tarter, an astronomer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., the “number two is the all-important number. We count one, two, infinity. We’re all looking for number two.”

Week of January 23, 2012

The week opened with a report of giant solar flare with the prompt emission of X-rays and the ejection of charged particles on a path toward Earth. It produced an aurora that was visible in northern latitudes and reported in Astronomy Picture of the Day for January 24. Another event occurred the following day, with the possibility of another aurora and disruption of communications on Tuesday.

These observatories continously monitor the Sun from space and provide real-time images and data about Space Weather:

Aurora norway 20120124.jpg

The colors of the aurora borealis, or northern lights, appear above the city of Tromsoe, in northern Norway. Stargazers were out in force across northern Europe on Tuesday night, hoping to be awed by a spectacular show fueled by the most powerful solar storm in six years. The bright auroras are also visible across Alaska and Canada. Credit: Washington Post, January 26, 2012

Week of January 16, 2012

The New York Times and Nature reported the discovery of more planets orbiting two stars. Like the fictional Tatooine of Star Wars there would be two "suns" in the sky if you could stand on them and look up. However, these new discoveries are the size of Saturn, and they are so close to their stars that they are too hot to be habitable.

The first planet found orbiting two stars was Kepler 16b. The Kepler telescope finds planets by capturing the moment when they pass between us and their stars, blocking out a tiny fraction of the star's light (often less than 0.1%). These events allow astronomers to measure the size of the orbit, the diameter of the planet, and in some instances even the planet's atmosphere. For Kepler 16 the data look like this:

Kepler16 transits.jpg
A planet in orbit around another star may block off light from the star for a few hours every time it goes around.
L. Doyle et al., Kepler-16: A Transiting Circumbinary Planet in Science 333, 1602-1606 (2011)

A planet like Earth is at just right distance -- in the Goldilocks zone -- where life such as we know it can flourish. Other known planets are usually either too close to their star(s) and too hot, are too far away and too cold.

Kepler16 system.jpg
Kepler 16 and other recently discovered planets orbit two stars.
L. Doyle et al., Kepler-16: A Transiting Circumbinary Planet in Science 333, 1602-1606 (2011)

Week of January 9, 2012

The science journal Nature reported the discovery made at the Very Large Telescope of the European Southern Observatory of a cloud of gas that is on a trajectory to fall into the million-solar-mass black hole at the center of the Milky Way. Click this link to see what they had to say.You may have to be connected through the University of Louisville's network to read the full article.

Nature Volume 481 Number 7379 pp5-108

A gas cloud has been spotted approaching the Milky Way's central black hole. Observations of its closest approach, expected to occur in mid-2013, may offer insight into the black hole's immediate surroundings.

Credit: ESO

The discovery was also described in the New York Times with the headline Black Hole Forecast: A Cold Gas Cloud

The center of the Milky Way is a site known as Sagittarius A*, or SgrA* for short. You can watch a short video about this here:

YouTube: ESO Discovery of gas near the center of our galaxy