Pluto Mission Success!

Amy and I joined the rest of the Earth and held our breath tonight mission-controlwaiting for the confirmation call from New Horizons.

The NASA Twitter feed counted down the approach of the signal as it crossed the halfway point, then Jupiter’s orbit, then Mars’ orbit. Then the live feed on NASA TV confirmed the nominal condition of one system after another and the control room exploded with cheers.

At its closest approach, the spacecraft buzzed Pluto at approximately 6,200 miles above its surface, then buzzed Charon from about 17,931 miles. The pictures and data will be exciting, although we’ll have to wait 16 months to see them all.

The first image from Pluto will arrive some time overnight and will be released in the morning. Tomorrow we’ll wake up to the opportunity of a lifetime – to view close-up images of the last unexplored world in our solar system. How cool is that??

Lynn

I Hate Pluto – and You Should, Too!

Pickett
Megan Pickett, Associate Professor of Physics, prepares for a presentation at the July NPMAS meeting.

Last Wednesday, our local astronomy club was treated to a presentation by Megan Pickett, an Associate Professor of Physics from Lawrence University in Appleton. In anticipation of NASA’s New Horizon spacecraft flyby of Pluto in less than two weeks, Pickett’s presentation was entitled “I Hate Pluto (and Why You Should, Too).”

Much of Pickett’s talk centered on the International Astronomical Union‘s (IAU) demotion of Pluto from a full-fledged planet to a dwarf planet in August of 2006. The IAU pulled Pluto’s status because of its size, its makeup, and its erratic orbit.

Because of its icy composition, Pickett said Pluto’s surface looks more like a plate of quiche than a rocky planet. She said Pluto is very small (less than 1,500 miles in diameter), and that it hasn’t cleared its orbit of debris, which is an accepted prerequisite for planet status. Additionally, Pluto’s orbit is unlike the orbit of any other planet in our Solar System.

Charon, once considered Pluto’s largest moon, is nearly the size of Pluto. It’s not even considered a moon of Pluto anymore, but rather, is classified as a binary object because the center of balance between Pluto and Charon is outside of Pluto.

Pluto
July 1 photo of Pluto and Cheron taken by the New Horizons spacecraft from a distance of ten million miles. Photo by NASA/JHUAPL/SWR.

Pluto is now classified as a Kuiper Belt object, one of hundreds of thousands of objects in the outer solar system. The Kuiper belt is home to the three known dwarf planets (Pluto, Makemake and Haumea) as well as most short-period comets.

On July 14, New Horizons will photograph Pluto’s surface from just 7,800 miles away. It will also survey Pluto’s moons and other Kuiper Belt objects.

Pickett has been a featured speaker for our club in the past, and always answers questions well past the museum’s closing time. She brought teammates from her other passion, the Paper Valley Roller Girls, a roller derby league she’s been president of since 2008.

Lynn

Ceres Curiosity is Killing Me!

I don’t know about you, but this is making me absolutely nuts!

Yesterday, NASA’s released this image on Ceres from an altitude of 2,700 miles.
Yesterday, NASA’s released this image on Ceres from an altitude of 2,700 miles.

 

My rational adult brain understands that I only need to be patient a little while longer. In August, the Dawn spacecraft will skim above the surface of Ceres at a mere 230 miles. Soon after that, we will hopefully receive a convincing explanation of what those bright, shiny spots are on Ceres. But until then, I’m losing sleep.

Fortunately, the photos from Ceres have improved as the Dawn spacecraft has gotten closer. But rather than solve the riddle, each photographic improvement has bought more questions.

HST 2004
HST 2004
Dawn, Feb. 2015. Distance 29,000 miles
Dawn, Feb. 2015. Distance 29,000 miles
Dawn, June 6, 2015. Distance 2,700 miles
Dawn, June 6, 2015. Distance 2,700 miles

Just what the heck are those mysterious, shiny patches? Our greatest minds are postulating subsurface ice reflecting sunlight, or ice volcanoes, or even salt. Me? Well I’m not convinced that the sun can light up ice that brightly from 257 million miles away. I could be wrong.

And ice volcanoes? Shiny salt? Sigh.

So just what the heck are they anyway??

Lynn

Jupiter Triple – Check!

Here's a bad selfie of me with the three shadows on  Jupiter.
Here’s a bad selfie of me with the three shadows on Jupiter.

Ok – so a clear night and a telescope would have made this a bit more satisfying, but hey, we can’t have everything!

On the night of the triple shadow transit we were, of course, clouded out. We weren’t alone this time, practically the entire U.S. was under a blanket of clouds. So that’s where we went – to the cloud! If we can’t watch a live transit, we would settle for a live webcast of one.

Yay Griffith Observatory! They came through with a promise of a clear sky and a live broadcast. I tuned in, made sure Lynn was online too, and made myself comfy on the sofa. There were over 1400 people online, and the comments were streaming so fast that I could feel the excitement! Plus, I was sharing this experience with people from all over the world!

Then Jupiter came into view. Well, the hazy blob appeared on screen. It seems that high altitude winds were making the view unstable. Fortunately Lynn was quicker than I was when someone posted an URL for another live webcast from Brazil. She texted me the new site and we both switched to Brazil.

Jupiter was setting there, and the sky was clear! Perfect! By now I had moved to the recliner, and had hooked up my TV to act as a monitor, thanks to Lynn for the idea. Why can’t all observing sessions be this comfy?

As the shadows crawled across the face of Jupiter, I was transfixed by the image. Checking this rare event off of my ‘must see’ observing list completed a very hectic week for me. Sure it would have been nice to be peeking at this through the eyepiece, but sometimes we have to take what we can get.

So here’s your lesson for the day, when a rare astronomical event is clouded out, somebody somewhere will be showing it on the net. You gotta love technology.

Amy

Make Mine a Triple

jupiter-triple
A computer simulation of the appearance of Jupiter at 6:30 am GMT on 24th January 2015l. Image credit: Ade Ashford/Sky Safari Pro.

We are so clouded out here in Wisconsin that it’s not even funny. And then, to crush any hope that we have of watching the Jupiter triple tonight, it starts to snow. One look at the satellite map on Weather Underground sealed the deal. No observing of the triple for Amy and me tonight.

However, we’ll be glued to the Griffith Observatory feed with all the rest of the clouded out saps in the country. Show starts at 8:30 p.m. PST. Be there or be square!

If you are one of the lucky ones to watch the transit tonight, or just want to share your thoughts about the live feed, share them with us!

http://new.livestream.com/GriffithObservatoryTV

 

During our last weekly meeting, it became apparent that Amy and I are getting excited about the upcoming triple transit of Jupiter this Friday, January 23rd. The transit:

  • is going to be at a reasonable hour that will not require an alarm clock
  • temperature promises to be above zero (probably into the double digits at transit time)
  • will happen on a Friday night so there’s no worry about getting up for work the next day
  • event has the word “rare” in it

All this scenario needs is a clear, dark sky and we’ll be happy.

Amy and I have witnessed the transit of Venus, and I think we may have seen a double transit at some time because they are pretty common.

But a triple, with the shadows of Callisto, Io and Europa visible on the surface of Jupiter at the same time, well, that doesn’t happen very often. In fact, it averages out to just once or twice a decade. Jupiter’s equator and the orbits of these three big moons will be almost edge-on to our line of sight, which only happens twice in Jupiter’s 11.9-year orbit of the Sun.

We’ll be doing some planning during the next few days, calling Tony and the other big club telescope guns to see if anyone will have something impressive pointing towards Jupiter that night. For this event, the bigger the better holds true. It will be a great opportunity to take some pictures and see something that most people never witness. Find a club or a big scope and get out there! As I said, all this scenario needs is a clear, dark, sky and we’ll be happy. Extremely happy.

– Lynn

Comet Lovejoy – Check It Out!

At our astronomy club’s last gathering, someone mentioned that comet Lovejoy was both visible and within reach of a good pair of binoculars. Well, as you can tell, I’ve been in a bit of a dry spell as far as observing is concerned so I thought maybe I should try it.

Comet Lovejoy
Comet Lovejoy

I have a thing about being cold. I don’t like it. I really don’t like it. I’d much rather curl up on the couch under a blanket and watch I.Q. (one of my favorite movies that has a comet in it) than go out in the cold and try to find one.

I just couldn’t turn my back on this one though.  After all, it was up early, relatively bright and should be easy to spot in my backyard. All the requirements of a quick observing session have been met.

Thursday night I looked up the position of the comet on my Sky Safari. The comet made a triangle with Rigel in Orion and Aldebaran in Taurus. No problem!

I put on my snow pants, boots, jacket and scarf and headed outside with my trusty 10 x 50 Nikon binoculars. I kept them inside my jacket so the lenses wouldn’t fog up on me right away.

When I got outside I realized that it wasn’t so bad! Cold, yes, but not too bad at all. The view from my backyard was actually pretty good! I could see Orion, Taurus and the Pleiades against a fairly dark sky. I eyeballed where I thought the comet should be. I had to sweep a little back and forth but within minutes I found it!

It was a fuzzball, no tail. Apparently the tail is pointing towards us at this time. I was really thrilled! I went inside to make sure I was seeing the right object. I checked the star pattern around the comet on my software. Yep, I saw it alright!

It’s still visible in the Northern latitudes so get out there and check it out! Here’s some info on where to find it – Comet Lovejoy

I officially logged my first observation of 2015. So far so good!

Amy

Happy New Year!

What a year it’s been! Amy found Uranus with 2015-logoher binoculars (no small feat!!) and we both learned how to use setting circles. We gave one of our Lynn & Amy Shows at the Neville Public Museum to a captivated crowd, and together attended our very first star party in Minnesota. We went to the annual club Perseids picnic last summer, and uploaded our 100th blog to this website.

November and December were especially busy as our jobs bogged us down. Then the shopping and baking season kicked in and we prepared for family time and Christmas and the company that it brings. I baked a zillion Christmas cookies, and got to spend a whole week with my first grandson who is quickly figuring out how to pull himself up and stand on his own. It was magical.

However, along with the joys of Christmas comes the crappy skies of Wisconsin. As the atmosphere above us grows colder each winter, the condensation and cloudiness spread out horizontally and results in mostly overcast days and nights. The clouds pretty much roll in here late in November and stay until the Messier Marathon. Then, when it does warm up a little, we are stuck with ground and air temperatures that are almost the same, which brings fog and condensation. Oh, and living a few miles away from a Great Lake doesn’t help much either.

And if that’s not bad enough, the cold temperatures discourage all except the heartiest from going outside for more than a few minutes – even on the clearest nights. Right now, the wind chill is double digits below zero, and last night the actual temperature was -7°F. If I heard right, the wind chill could dip below -30°F tonight. Sigh.

However, despite all the current weather gloom, there is a lot to look forward to in the coming year, starting off with the NPMAS Christmas Party this Wednesday (the White Elephant Gift Exchange is always a hoot!). Then there is some winter camping at Camp U-Na-Li-Ya in a few weeks, lots of blogs to write, and a calendar full of meetings and pizza at Happy Joe’s. There will be warmer nights of observing at Parmentier’s, public observing events, meteor showers, a couple of total lunar eclipses, the New Horizons spacecraft arriving at Pluto, and hopefully another great trip to the Minnesota Star Party.

The year 2015 promises to be a great year for the Astro Babes, and we hope it is a great year for you, too. Happy New Year!

– Lynn

A time to mourn

SpaceShipTwo (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
SpaceShipTwo (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

It was a sad week for the burgeoning U.S. private space program.

First was the loss of the unmanned Antares supply rocket last Tuesday. It exploded just seconds after liftoff in Virginia, and 5,000 pounds of food, experiments, and supplies for the International Space Station went up with it. It was the third cargo mission to the ISS contracted by NASA.

A few days later, the Virgin Galactic Spaceship Two crashed during a test run in California’s Mojave Desert, killing the co-pilot. A malfunction took place shortly after it separated from White Knight Two, the rocket that hoists Space Ship Two to an altitude of 45,000 feet.

The food, supplies, and scientific experiments can easily be replaced. However, the losses would have been much greater if Spaceship Two had been filled with the first batch of space tourists. More than 600 people have already bought their tickets at around $200,000 a seat.

Because of the forced retirement of NASA’s shuttle program in 2011, the U.S. is totally dependent on the Russians to get our astronauts into space, and on private industry to get supplies to the ISS. It is what it is.

There will be long-term repercussions from both of these incidents, but that doesn’t mean we should discontinue our exploration efforts. Space is, and always will be, a very dangerous place.

Lunar Eclipse

This past Wednesday morning we were treated to a total lunar eclipse. The fact that the earth’s shadow even exists usually escapes us. On most nights the moon seems to glide across the night sky uninterrupted. Every so often, the moon passes through the earth’s shadow, giving us a spectacular show.

This one was to be quite early, so the decision to crawl out of bed at 4am was a tough one for me.  Should I make the trek out to our observing site or pull the covers up and snuggle in for another couple of hours? The trees on my street were in full strut with their red-orange leaves making it impossible for me to watch this one through the mini-blinds in my living room.

I rolled out of bed, threw some clothes on over my P.J.’s, grabbed my binoculars and off I went. A beautiful clear sky rewarded me when I arrived. A dozen hearty souls were already there with telescopes and binoculars already watching the eclipse.

First order of business – coffee and Twizzlers – both are observing staples with our club.

After Goldilocks-ing it down the row of binoculars and telescopes I thought I’d try some projection astro-photography. In other words, hold your smart phone camera up to the eyepiece and try to capture a photograph. It’s not as easy as it sounds! So here’s my only picture of the eclipse.

Lunar Eclipse

Too bad the clouds rolled in and spoiled the view. The invention of a cloud filter would be greatly appreciated!

Back at home I crawled back into bed hoping for about 90 minutes of zzzzzz’s. If only I hadn’t had that coffee………

Here’s hoping for a better report of the up coming partial solar eclipse on October 23rd!

Amy

Amazing Sun Photo

Isn’t this picture of the Sun amazing? It was taken by Tony Kroes, a fellow club member that Amy and I have raved about in the past. He’s a very talented astronomer who lives West of Green Bay, and a resource in the area that we really appreciate.

20140907 Solar Filament Loop
Image condensed into one frame using Registax software to combine and stack the best 30 frames of a 300 frame video of the sun. Video captured on 9/7/2014 with a Celestron Skyris 274M CCD video camera and x2.8 Barlow at 1/30th sec per frame through a 60mm Coronado SolarMax II hydrogen-alpha solar telescope.

Tony took this picture this past weekend on 9/7, a beautiful Wisconsin Sunday. Make sure you read Tony’s details below. Thanks for sharing Tony!!!

Image condensed into one frame using Registax software to combine and stack the best 30 frames of a 300 frame video of the sun. Video captured  on 9/7/2014 with a Celestron Skyris 274M CCD video camera and x2.8 Barlow at 1/30th sec per frame through a 60mm Coronado SolarMax II hydrogen-alpha solar telescope. 

I placed the blue dot on the image to show the relative size of Earth (110 times smaller than the sun in diameter.) So the looping prominence on the right side of the image would have gone completely over the Earth, although I sure wouldn’t have wanted to be there at the time!

On the upper left side you can see a ‘hedge-row’ of smaller prominences. All along the distance between the loop and the hedgerow you can see numerous tiny spikes called ‘spicules’. These are small (relatively speaking) jets of material that spurt upward, lasting only a few minutes before being replaced with new ones in a cycle of constant activity. They typically extend 3,000-10,000 Km above the surface (the earth is 12,000 Km diameter.)

Some good details are also seen on the surface of the sun in this image. There is an extremely bright ‘active region’, which is an area of extreme magnetic activity, just to the upper left of center. These areas often occur around sunspots, and can be hotbeds of solar flare activity. Further onto the disk of the sun you can see two smoky grey worm-like structures. These are prominences just like the looping one seen on the edge of the disk, but because they are seen against the surface background instead of the black of space, it is difficult to tell that they are really huge 3D jets of material spewing out into space and then falling back onto the surface.

Also of note is the surface itself.  You can see the orange-peel ‘granulation’ and many tiny fibrous patches across this area. This is the surface of the Chromosphere, which is only visible in a narrow band of wavelengths, specifically that of singly-ionized hydrogen known as hydrogen-alpha or H-a for short. This wavelength is narrow, and is usually masked completely by all the other wavelengths put out by the sun, but the special filter in my telescope blocks all the rest, allowing us to see the delicate detail hidden in this one small part of the solar spectrum.

Tony Kroes

Quantum Skies Observatory