Comet Panstarrs!

Comet PANSTARRS
Photo by Tony Kroes on 3/13/13 at the Cedar Drive Observatory near Pulaski, WI.

Yay!! Woo Hoo!!! Wooot woooot! After three days of snow and clouds, Wednesday night turned out to be our best bet for seeing comet Panstarrs. We finally had sunshine all day!  I bee-lined it over to Lynn’s house right after work. She gathered up her warm clothes, grabbed a bite to eat and looked up the directions to Tony’s. 

Do we feel guilty about missing a club meeting? Naah, we just HAD to see this comet! As we drove in rush hour traffic we could see the sun slowly sinking in the western sky. As each turn took us closer to our comet encounter, we got more and more excited. We knew this could be our only chance of seeing it! It seemed like we hit every red light on the way out of town. We were sure we’d get there too late. Lynn kept watch on the GPS’s estimated time of arrival. We were making good time.

Photo by Tony Kroes
Photo by Tony Kroes at the Cedar Drive Observatory near Pulaski, WI.

We met Tony outside his house and we trekked out past the barn, winding up a path to the observatory, then through the snow and up a hill to a flattened out spot in the snow. We all had our binoculars and Tony and his wife Tara brought out their cameras.  The crescent moon hung about 40 degrees up, a guidepost for finding the comet.  Soon the sun sank below the horizon and we scanned the sky.  Using an outstretched arm with our hand in a fist to measure 10 degrees, we estimated the height of the comet. It should have been 10 degrees below the moon, roughly halfway between the horizon and the moon.

Now’s it’s around 7:20, our feet are frozen bricks, cameras are seizing up and we’re not sure we can make it back to the car in the dark without taking a tumble. No comet yet, but we’re not giving up.  Around 7:40 Tony’s phone rang – a fellow club member called, they had spotted it! A brief moment of disappointment that we didn’t find it first gave way to a frantic search. We all had our binocs carefully scanning, straight down from the moon and slightly to the right until – there it was! I was so amazed by the beauty of it, the bright nucleus and the hazy tail behind it. I couldn’t see it naked eye, (that whole visual contrast thing)  but Lynn was able to.

The picture above was taken by Tony. After a few seconds of exposure the comet seems to pop in the picture! It looks like it was just blazing in the sky but it was really more of a fuzzy without binoculars. When we first spotted Panstarrs it was about 5 degrees above those trees on the left of the photo. It didn’t take long for it to set, maybe 20 minutes or so. We kept watching it until the photo ops were gone and our feet just couldn’t take it any longer. It  was a beautiful sight, well worth the trek and cold!

We made it back to town in time to meet up with our club members at the pizza joint we frequent after our meetings. A hot cup of coffee warmed my hands and a bar-b-que pizza warmed my tummy. We exchanged stories of our adventure and they caught us up with club news and the upcoming Messier Marathon! Watch for that adventure in April.

Not a bad night!

Another successful observing session: great fun, great people, great viewing!

Amy

Upcoming Comets

Now that we’ve had our fill of asteroid action for a while, let’s look forward to comet-carvingsomething a little calmer that’s heading our way this year. Two very bright comets are on the horizon, and one later this year could be the brightest in recorded history. I was fortunate enough to stand in the Arizona desert in 1986 and see Haley’s Comet, and I’m hoping that 2013 will be just as memorable.

Pan-STARRS (Comet C/2011 L4) will be its brightest on March 10 and will hang around until about the middle of April. After swinging around the sun, Pan-STARRS will pass through the constellations Pisces and Andromeda, and will be perfectly positioned for us to see here in the Northern hemisphere. It is expected to be visible to the naked eye and should have an impressive tail.

But the real excitement is building for ISON (Comet C/2012 S1). On Nov. 28, ISON will pass within 680,000 miles of the surface of the sun, much closer than Mercury. Because it is passing so close to the Sun, it is hoped that large quantities of ice and dust will boil off and give us an impressive show. ISON may even be clearly visible during the daylight hours during the days leading up to Christmas. Well, unless the Sun breaks it into pieces first.

Although there are always comets in the sky, most of them pass too far away from the sun to develop large, visible tails. The nuclei of a comet is primarily made up of ice, dust and small rocky particles, and when it gets close to the Sun, the Sun’s heat vaporizes the ice of the comet and blows the ice and dust away with the solar wind – which is why a comet’s tail always points away from the sun.

Fortunately, we haven’t heard anything about either comet passing too close to the Earth for comfort. I mean sure, Jupiter was hit back in 1994 by Comet Shoemaker-Levy, and again in 2009 by another comet that left a bruise about the size of the Pacific Ocean. But hey — we’ve got nothing to worry about, right? (Note: See earlier Bruce Willis entry).

Lynn

End of the World

The “experts” told us all along that Asteroid 2012 DA14 was not going to collide with earth. Nope. Not a chance. It won’t even disturb our willis4communications satellites as it whizzes through their orbits.

But didn’t DA14 make you just a little nervous? Didn’t you wake up last Thursday and think hey – 17,000 miles is just not that far away! It’s like flying from New York to Sydney and back. And it’s 5,000 miles closer than the satellite that feeds my Direct TV dish.

And then you turn on your computer and see all the images coming from central Russia from an event that NASA described as a “tiny asteroid” that created a blast that was equivalent to 300,000 tons of TNT. Wasn’t this all just a little too close for comfort? But as good Americans, we trust authority, and we trust that someone is looking out for us on a planetary scale, so we go on with our busy day.

But if you do just a little research on your own, your confidence will start to whither. “Asteroid Impact Avoidance” is a good phrase to start with in your search engine. You’ll discover that most articles start with what size asteroid will cause extinction-level damage to our biosphere. Then in the next paragraph or so, you’ll be assured that the threat isn’t any more substantial than it was yesterday, and that modern technology has opened up new options to prevent such an event.

Then you’ll read about all these new “options.” Current strategies seem to fall into two categories: destroy or delay – both will require years of warning in order to design, test and build. Destroy is self explanatory, using nuclear bombs or kinetic impactors to fragment an asteroid into pieces that will either miss the earth or burn up in the atmosphere. Delay strategies sound more promising and involve delaying (or advancing) the arrival of an asteroid by seven minutes (the time it takes the earth to travel the distance of one planetary diameter). Delay strategies include things like gravity tractors, rockets, mass drivers and laser cannons – all of which must be flown near the asteroid in order to push it a little off course.

During all my research, I didn’t find an actual “solution” that is parked on a launch pad and ready to go.  All I found were projects, either existing or planned, that will find and catalog all of the tens of thousands of objects that are big enough to cross Earth’s orbit and do substantial damage. But I even question how successful the last 20 years of cataloging have proven to be, considering that DA14 was discovered by a dentist in Spain only a year ago, and nobody at all saw the Russian asteroid coming. Maybe we need to keep cataloging but also spend some money on a real solution.

Personally, I’d sleep a whole lot better knowing that there was a gravity tractor strapped to an atlas rocket somewhere – tested, gassed up and ready to go. But until then, I guess we’ll all just have to just count on Bruce Willis to save the day. I hope someone has his phone number handy.

Lynn

Posted in Current Event | Tags: PostCommentsIcon1 Comment »

Time Well Spent

star_gazing_projectPublic outreach – otherwise known as a great excuse for wearing my astronaut flight suit that I got at space camp. On Saturday I spent some time at a local science expo for kids, helping out in the booth with telescopes, binoculars and handouts. It was very fun and rewarding. I always love to share this hobby with other people.

It always amazes me to see how open the kids are to new experiences. Like a carnival ride they can’t get enough of, they line up over and over to peek through a telescope aimed at a paper target on the ceiling. Outside Gary and Wayne, ever the troopers, stood vigil by their solar scopes, patiently re-aiming the telescopes time after time, after little hands grab the eyepiece.  For hours in the cold they help hundreds of eager kids see something they may have never seen before – sunspots on the sun!

So here’s a challenge for all of you – find a way to share astronomy with someone. It could be a family member, a friend, or your child! You could simply share a beautiful moon, or find out when the ISS will be gliding by. Sometimes a little thing like that could spark interest. If nothing else, it’s a great way of spending time with your family.

Clear skies!

Amy

The Omen

Last Saturday, a handful of us gathered for the Kroes Observing Weekend, which is an organized event hosted each year by one of our club members. It gives us a great opportunity to observe a dark western sky close to home. I didn’t take advantage of that horizon though (my neglected to-do list included every direction but west) but I still had a mission in mind.

After we arrived and gathered our stuff from the car, we hiked around the barn to get to the viewing area. It didn’t take me long to find him. The eastern horizon there is relatively flat, so it was easy to pick out my old friend Orion, already scraping his knees along the horizon an hour before midnight. I plopped my lawn chair down facing due east and spent the last hour of the day looking for Orionid meteors.

Although you can record meteors at any time for the Astroleague’s Meteor program, it seems to me that it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun if there wasn’t a full-blown meteor stream going on. After all, only one meteor out of six during that hour that was not an Orionid.

As I sat there looking in his general direction, it didn’t take long for that old anxiety to return. See, I have a big problem with Orion. Just like the Robins and the Daffodils announce the arrival of spring, in our neck of the woods, Orion’s appearance each fall heralds the beginning of a long, cold Wisconsin winter. I think the trees agree with me too, because once he gets his head and shoulders over the horizon, they immediately drop their leaves and go to sleep. I don’t blame them.

Come mid-winter, Orion hovers over my house like a frozen angel. In the last few weeks of the year, he fits quite nicely within the only open area in the dome of trees that covers our yard. I see him chuckling as I scurry from my frozen car to my frozen front door across my frozen ice-covered driveway. Real funny.

I suppose I could take solace in the knowledge that, in early spring, he’ll quietly disappear below the horizon and all the leaves will return and the ground will warm. But from here, that time looks a long way off. Brrrrr.

Lynn

Watching History

What does an AstroBabe do when its raining and miserable outside? Well I put on some tea, wrap myself in a blanket and sit down to watch a man make history! Saturday morning when the skies were dark and dismal here, the sky was clear and calm in Roswell New Mexico, the site of the Red Bull Stratos jump.

There Austrian BASE jumper Felix Baumgartner and the Red Bull Stratos team set out to break the world’s free fall record set by American Joe Kittinger. In 1960, Colonel Kintinger floated via hot air balloon to 102,800 feet then jumped, setting a world record for longest sky dive and longest free fall.

I sat glued to the computer screen, watching the two hour ascent, totally amazed. Kittinger was the Cap Com for the mission, providing the only contact between mission control and Baumgartner. He remained in constant contact, taking Felix through the checklist prior to the jump, and helping trouble shoot a problem with his faceplate that jeopardized the mission.

We saw Felix’ mom, nervously watching her son ascend into the history books. I liked her right away! She wore a bright green alien ring on the pinky of her left hand. My kind of gal!

Finally – at 128,100 feet, all systems were go. Felix pressurized his suit, opened the hatch and stepped out onto the platform. I imagined myself up there calmly explaining to mission control that they had to GET ME DOWN! Then he jumped.  He fell through the vacuum, tumbling uncontrollably, nearly losing consciousness. He reached speeds of 800 mph and may have broken the speed of sound.  He gained control, steadied himself and continued to free fall to earth. After 4 minutes and 19 seconds (leaving the free fall record to now 84 year old Kittinger)  he deployed his parachute.

He floated down to the ground and amazingly landed on his feet! Just another jump for him it seemed. He set at least two records that day – highest free fall and highest manned balloon flight. The rest will be determined by examining the data from the fall.

I wonder how it feels to accomplish so much. There are days that I can barely get a meal on the table much less break the speed of sound. I know that I’ve accomplished many things in my life, but how do you top something like that? What do you do next?

I’m going to try to turn the mountain of laundry in my room into a small hill. I’m sure Felix has bigger plans than that (thank goodness!) I can’t wait to find out what they are!

Congratulations Felix!

Amy

Posted in Current EventPostCommentsIcon No Comments »