Confirmed: Stony Ridge Observatory Survived the Station Fire

Stony Ridge Observatory

Stony Ridge Observatory

There is some good news coming out of the ashes of the horrendous Station Fire that continues to burn some parts of LA County: Stony Ridge Observatory is safe.

The observatory, located approximately 5 miles north east of the larger Mt. Wilson Observatory, was built and is run by amateur astronomers. Also, the site is a lot smaller, meaning the single observatory dome couldn’t receive the same amount of fire fighting attention as the historic Mt. Wilson site. Fortunately, it would appear the 30-inch Newtonian-Cassegrain telescope is safe inside it’s domed home.

Last week, the Stony Ridge webmaster kindly left this message on Astroengine:

The Stony Ridge Observatory from Mt. Wilson. Credit: Dave Jurasevich, Mt. Wilson Observatory Superintendent

The Stony Ridge Observatory from Mt. Wilson. Credit: Dave Jurasevich, Mt. Wilson Observatory Superintendent

“For those of you who have expressed your support for Stony Ridge Observatory — thank you! As you can imagine, it’s been a stressful time for all of us, and we very much appreciate all the kind thoughts and expressions of support we’ve received. Although we’ve not been able to look inside the buildings yet, it appears at least from the outside that Stony Ridge has been spared damage but will require extensive cleanup. Keep checking the website every so often. More info/photos will be posted there as we get them.”Kay Meyer, Stony Ridge Observatory webmaster

Tonight, Pam Sable, a member of the Stony Ridge Observatory, sent me a message confirming that the site was safe. However, the wildfire has left its mark.

“Our site is in what used to be, a lovely forest only 50 minutes from my home in Glendale, which itself is an area only 20 minutes from Downtown L.A. Once in the Angeles Forest, all the sights and sounds of the city are gone. The damage to the forest is very sad but at least it will return in time. Yet if Stony Ridge had been destroyed, it would have been irreplaceable by today’s costs. We are very, very fortunate.” –Pam Sable, Stony Ridge Observatory astronomer.

Indeed, the fire is still burning. Unfortunately, fire fighters are hurrying to extinguish the blaze as hot weather is forecast for the next week. There’s also the spectre of the Santa Ana winds that could cause some complications.

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Amateur Captures Solar Eclipse, By Io… On Ganymede

io-ganymede-shadow-still

Of all the amazing things I plan to look at through my future telescope (yes, I’m still saving), this event didn’t even cross my mind. Not surprising really, it’s probably never been observed before: Io’s whole shadow transiting across the large Jovian moon, Ganymede.

But on August 16th, that changed when Christopher Go from Cebu, Philippines used his 11-inch Celestron telescope to capture the sequence of events as Io passed in front of the Sun, casting a near-perfect shadow on the large moon of Ganymede. If you were standing on Ganymede’s surface, looking at the Sun, you would have seen an Io solar eclipse.

io-gann-eclipse

My favourite thing about this animation is that both moons are very detailed, even at this resolution. You can see mottled shades on Ganymede, and I think the spin of Io may even have been captured.

A wonderful testament to Christopher Go’s astronomy skills and a fantastic example of how advanced our amateur astronomical equipment is becoming…

Source: Spaceweather.com

UPDATE: It turns out that little Io is getting its own back for last July’s eclipse by Ganymede, plunging the smaller moon into darkness. In the following video by OccultDave on YouTube, over a period of about 16 minutes, Io (the dot to the far-right) dims dramatically as Ganymede (the dot in the middle, next to the bright disk of Jupiter) blocks the sunlight:

Deconstructing Doomsday

Alex Young in front of the cameras in the post-Apocalyptic setting of a Brooklyn building site.

Alex Young in front of the cameras in the post-Apocalyptic setting of a Brooklyn building site.

The funny thing about being involved in a doomsday documentary is trying to find a suitable balance between entertainment and science. This is the conclusion I reached after the interview I did for KPI productions in New York for the upcoming 2012 documentary on the Discovery Channel last week (just in case you were wondering why Astroengine.com was being a little quiet these last few days).

Apparently, the Apocalypse will be very dusty.

Apparently, the Apocalypse will be very dusty.

Naturally, the production team was angling for what it might be like to be hit by a “killer” solar flare, what kinds of terror and destruction a brown dwarf could do to Earth and what would happen if our planet’s magnetic poles decided to do a 180°. It’s always fun to speculate after all. However, I wasn’t there to promote half-baked theories of 2012 doom, I was there to bring some reality to the nonsensical doomsday claims. But with real science comes some unexpected concerns for the safety of our planet — not in 2012, but sometime in the future.

An added bonus to my NYC trip was meeting the awesome Alex Young, a solar physicist from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Alex was asked to New York for the same reasons I was, but he has a current and comprehensive understanding of solar dynamics (whereas my solar physics research is so 2006). He actually works with SOHO data, a mission I have massive respect for.

Alex Young and myself... very excited about doomsday.

Alex Young and myself... very excited about doomsday.

My interview was carried out on Wednesday morning, and Alex’s was in the afternoon. The KPI guys were great, a joy to be involved in such a professional project. The documentary producer, Jonathan, asked me the questions in a great location, a huge Brooklyn building that was undergoing renovation. Very dusty with a post-apocalyptic twist. If I was going to shoot a movie about the end of the world, this building would be it.

The KPI documentary will certainly be very different from the Penn & Teller: Bullshit! episode I was involved with, but it was just as much fun, if not more so (it was like a day-long science fest).

Of particular note was Alex’s sobering words about the woeful lack of funds in solar physics (i.e. Earth-damaging solar flares and CMEs). I hope his closing statement about NOAA space weather prediction funding makes the final cut; it was nothing less than chilling.

Jon and Sarah from KPI on the set.

Jon and Sarah from KPI on the set.

Although we both hammered home the point that the fabled Earth-killing solar flare wont happen in 2012 (let’s face it, our Sun is still going through an epic depression, why should solar maximum be anything spectacular?), it is probably the one theory that holds the most scientific merit. In fact, as both Alex and I agreed, for a civilization that depends on sensitive technology in space and on the ground, we really need to prepare for and understand solar storms far better than we do at present.

I won’t go into any more details, but the documentary will be on the Discovery Channel in November, so I’ll give plenty of warning to fire up those DVRs.

Thank you Sarah, Jonathan and the rest of the crew from KPI for making the New York visit so memorable…

Beware the Exploding Pellegrino

"It went bang!" exclaimed Barney, a rabbit who lives nearby.

"It went bang!" exclaimed Barney, a rabbit who lives nearby.

Interesting thing happened tonight. Not only did I accidentally pour dish soap into the dishwasher (yes, I know), two bottles of Pellegrino exploded in my fridge. Call it ‘applied physics’ if you like; water expands when it’s frozen, fizzy water explodes when frozen in a glass bottle! Hmmm… I never said my Ph.D. was in Common Sense… But in my defence, how was I supposed to know it was that cold in my refrigerator?

Barney was a little shaken from the loud bangs, but I think he’ll get over it (actually, he is over it, nom nomming on a bit of banana for his troubles).

Confirmed! Jupiter Was Hit By Something (Update)

Image captured by Anthony Wesley on 19th July 2009 at 1554UTC from Murrumbateman Australia.

Image captured by Anthony Wesley on 19th July 2009 at 1554UTC from Murrumbateman Australia.

On Sunday, SpaceWeather.com reported that an amateur astronomer from Australia had noticed a dark spot rotate into view on the Jovian surface:

The jet-black mark is near Jupiter’s south pole (south is up in the image). I have imagery of that same location from two nights earlier without the impact mark, so this is a very recent event. The material has already begun to spread out in a fan shape on one side, and should be rapidly pulled apart by the fast jetstream winds.” — Anthony Wesley

Although this was all very exciting, and conjured up memories from the Shoemaker-Levy 9 Jupiter impact in 1994 (as documented by Hubble), I think the majority of blogs and news websites were initially reluctant to proclaim that this new dark spot was the site of an impact by a comet or asteroid. Why? Well, these events aren’t supposed to happen very often. That’s why the Shoemaker-Levy 9 impact was termed “a once in a lifetime” event.

But, 15 years later (a dog’s lifetime, perhaps), it’s been confirmed by JPL (pending an official release) that the dark patch is in fact an impact site, and not some crazy weather system:

Glenn Orton from JPL has imaged this site using the NASA Infrared Telescope on Hawaii and confirms that it is an impact site and not a localised weather event.Update by Anthony Wesley

UPDATE (14:00 PST): Sky & Telescope Magazine is tracking developments, and reports that Leigh Fletcher, a scientist at the InfraRed Telescope Facility in Hawaii, is tweeting his findings from analysis of the Jupiter impact site. From the high infrared emissions in reflected sunlight off the dark spot, it is almost conclusive that the spot was caused by an impact by a comet or asteroid.

This has all the hallmarks of SL-9 in 1994 (15 years to the day!). High altitude particulates, looks nothing like weather phenom.” –@LeighFletcher

The most astounding thing for me is that this impact was initially observed by an amateur astronomer, and not a space agency. We await further word from Glenn Orton at JPL and Leigh Fletcher at Hawaii, but all indications suggest this black patch IS another impact crater…

A later image of the Jupiter impact (Anthony Wesley)

A later image of the Jupiter impact (Anthony Wesley)

More news to follow

Source: Anthony Wesley’s site

Brian Malow Presents Galileo and Astronomy (TIME.com Video)

brian_iya2009

Of course, 2009 is the International Year of Astronomy, and half-way through this important year, we’ve seen some amazing feats of science. We’ve been fixing telescopes in orbit, assembling space stations, peering deep into the cosmos with a vast suite of telescopes, we’ve acquired new and improved techniques to analyse data and we’re on course for even bigger discoveries in the run-up to 2010.

So this evening, I receive word from science comedian Brian Malow that he hosted a TIME.com video all about Galileo and the history of astronomy.

It’s superb!

If you wanted a one-stop overview of the spirit behind IYA2009, this is it. It’s witty, informative and above all, it’s entertaining — all the things this special year for science should be about.

Take it away Brian!

Follow Brian on Twitter: @sciencecomedian

Venus is Lonely. Very, Very Lonely

venus

Venus is a hellish world. Although the planet is nearly the same size of Earth, that’s where the similarities end. Having said that, it does have an atmosphere, but it’s not the kind of atmosphere you would ever want to spend time breathing in. Composed of a dense carbon dioxide/nitrogen mix where clouds are made from sulphuric acid, you can forget about Venus as a tropical holiday destination. Even if you found a way to ‘breathe’ on Venus, you’d need to prepare yourself for the scorching 470°C surface temperatures and bone crushing pressures 100 times the pressure we are used to on Earth.

Doesn’t sound like a very nice place does it? Certainly an interesting world, providing us with invaluable science (after all, the reason for the extreme temperatures on Venus is due to a run-away greenhouse effect, it could help us understand the growing problems we are facing with our comparatively mild global warming woes), but an unlikely candidate for human colonization (unless we lived in the clouds).

Venus might not be a popular world for mankind to live on, but it doesn’t seem to be a popular world for natural satellites to orbit around either. It doesn’t have any moons, and astronomers are a little confused as to why this is the case. The only other planet without moons is the innermost terrestrial planet, Mercury. Every other planet in the Solar System has at least one natural satellite.

For hundreds of years, astronomers have been on the lookout for anything orbiting Venus but they’ve had little luck. However, some of the earliest observations of Venus appeared to indicate the presence satellites (in 1645, F. Fontana mentioned the possibility of a satellite discovery, followed by further observations in the late 1600’s and 1700’s). Since 1768, there have been no further reports of any satellite sightings. 1956 was the last published survey for Venusian satellites, using photographic plates, and that survey (published by Gerard Kuiper in 1961) drew up blanks for any satellites measuring over 2.5 km wide.

The lack of Venusian moons is puzzling, as a Venus-moon interacting mechanism has often been invoked as the reason why Venus has a retrograde spin (i.e. viewed from the ‘top’ of the Solar System plane, Venus has a clockwise rotation, whereas the rest of the planets, apart from Uranus — that spins on its side, bizarrely — have an anti-clockwise, or prograde, spin). Perhaps Venus once had a moon, but it has since been lost due to gravitational interactions with other Solar System bodies, or due to tidal instabilities, the innermost terrestrial planets collided with their large satellites a long time ago.

This is where Scott Sheppard from the Carnegie Institution of Washington and Chadwick Trujillo from the Gemini Observatory (Hawaii) step in. In a recent publication titled, “A Survey for Satellites of Venus,” Sheppard and Trujillo pick up where Kuiper left off, and carry out a systematic survey searching for any natural satellites around Venus. Only this time, by using the cutting-edge 6.5 meter telescope and IMACS wide-field CCD imager at Las Campanas observatory in Chile, they looked for objects only a few hundred meters in diameter.

The researchers scanned the interior of the Venusian ‘Hill Sphere’ to see if any undiscovered tiny moons were lurking. The Hill sphere is the volume of space surrounding a planetary body where natural satellites can orbit without being destabilized by the gravitational effects of the Sun. If there are any unforeseen moons, they should be found in stable orbits within the Hill sphere.

Sheppard and Trujillo have drawn blanks. Although a few errant asteroids were detected, no natural satellites down to a diameter of 600 meters were discovered. They surveyed 90% of the Venusian Hill sphere, and 99% of the inner Hill sphere (0.7rH) — the volume of space predicted to contain the stable orbits of natural satellites.

This new survey improves the non-detection of satellites down to a factor of 50 on previous studies, thereby proving Venus either, a) never possessed any satellites over 1km in diameter, or b) the orbits of past large satellites have become unstable and crashed into Venus or flung into space.

Either way, Venus remains alone, with only the ESA Venus Express for company

Source: A Survey for Satellites of Venus, Sheppard & Trujillo, 2009. arXiv:0906.2781v1 [astro-ph.EP]