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

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Star Party in Amberg

A great time was had by all at Gerry’s star party scheduled spider-pixThursday through tonight in Amberg, WI. A small group turned out on Thursday, but Amy and I were lucky enough to catch the best skies on Friday night. Tonight (Saturday) was clouded out.

Yes, there were misquitoes and flies, but Deep Woods Off took care of them. This spider, however, looked big enough to grab the Deep Woods Off can and chase us around the observing field. At least we didn’t have to battle any dew.

The skies were unsteady around 10:30, and thin clouds occasionally interfered briefly with what we were trying to observe. But as the evening progressed, seeing steadied and I found M4 and M5, and easily split Alcor and Mizar with Gerry’s 10×80 binoculars. We saw Pluto in Gerry’s 10″ Schmidt, watched a really bright Iridium Flare, and the Milky Way brightened as the sky got darker.

Amy and I also entertaiobserving-fieldned ourselves by looking for Asterisms, and found the Engagement Ring, the Owl Cluster, the Gas Pump, and the Guardians of the Pole. We’ll write more about Asterisms in a later blog.

Oh yes. I can’t forget to mention the Twizzlers and the Banana Cream Pie from the Amberg Pub. Thanks Gerry and Mary!!

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

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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

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Photographing Cool, Distant Planets Now Possible

Back in 1985, I lived in Arizona and attended Arizona State University. My favorite

Image taken by the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI) shows a planet orbiting the star Beta Pictoris.

classes were (of course) a mid-level class in astronomy and in physics.

Many evenings after dinner, my friend, Hol, and I would float around in the pool and discuss all sorts of heady topics, such as surface tension, pulsars, light spectra, and the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Hol helped me take the leap into converting science into mathematics.

On one of those nights 29 years ago, in one of those heady discussions, the topic was astrophotography. In the retelling of something that I had learned in class that day, I misspoke and said that we were close to actually photographing planets outside of our solar system in visible light. Time has erased what I actually meant to say, but my friend got a good chuckle out of that.

“How absurd is THAT,” he blurted (or something quite similar to that). I, of course, immediately got defensive and said, “What? Well I didn’t mean to say that we could photograph planets today, but I’m sure we will someday.”

“HA! That’ll NEVER happen!” he insisted, and he was not one to say the word ‘never’. “They’re too far away and too small and too buried in the visible light of their sun. What a ridiculous idea.”

When he put it that way, it did sound rather implausible, but I dug in my heels and announced that yes, I believed it WAS possible and that it would happen in my lifetime. In my memory, he sneered at me for weeks after that, but he probably just snorted and said that I was totally wrong. A $10 bet ensued.

So here we are, nearly 30 years later, and it’s finally happened using a charged couple device (CCD). The new technology is called Magellan Adaptive Optics (MagAO). The first planet recently captured was Beta Pictoris b in the constellation Pictor, which has a mass 12 times that of Jupiter and orbits its sun at nine A.U. (equivalent to the distance from here to Saturn).

The exciting thing about this advancement is that unlike infrared, which only picks up “hot” planets today, we can use CCD to detect planets that have cooled. Cooled planets have a much greater likely to be habitable.

So ha HA Mr. Hol. Looks like I get the last laugh after all. I’ll be watching for that ten-spot in the mail.

Lynn

Mars at Opposition

Last night was the big night to see Mars up close. Ok – relatively close anyway. What is opposition you ask? When Mars is at opposition it means that it is directly opposite the sun relative to us. As you can see here, on April 8th the sun is directly opposite Mars from our perspective. It’s about 57 million miles away, not the closest it can get, but not too bad.

Mars at Opposition
Mars at Opposition

As you can see, in 2003 Mars was very close, at 35 million miles. What this means for us observers is that Mars is bigger! We’re able to see more surface features and polar ice caps. Some may even be able to see clouds!

Mars at Opposition
Mars at Opposition

I went out tonight with my 90mm refractor. Unfortunately I didn’t bring a powerful enough eyepiece outside with me and by the time I went back in to get one the clouds rolled in. Such is observing in Wisconsin.

Try observing Mars this week – do some sketching at the eyepiece! Try adding a filter, green to bring out the polar ice caps. You could get out your smart phone and try some through the eyepiece photography! If you’re really busy you could spot Mars over the trees on your way home and take a moment to smile at our planetary neighbor.

It’s all good.

Amy