2009: The International Year Of Astronomy

iya2009

Four centuries after Galileo Galilei first pointed his telescope at the night sky, the international community will not only be commemorate Galileo’s momentous discoveries, we will celebrate mankind’s continuing scientific endeavours in space. Back in 2007, the United Nations decided 2009 should be dedicated to astronomy and named it the “International Year of Astronomy”. It is going to be a huge year for all astronomical disciplines, intended to educate, celebrate and enjoy the wonders of the cosmos. Many events are planned throughout the coming twelve months, in the 135 nations participating. You won’t be far away from an IYA2009 participating group or organization, so be sure to embrace this landmark year, it could change the way you view the Universe forever…

The Universe, yours to discover.

Continue reading “2009: The International Year Of Astronomy”

Small but Mighty: KPD 0005+5106, the 200,000K White Dwarf

Sirius B1 - one of the more famous white dwarf stars (Frank Gregorio)

A white dwarf called KPD 0005+5106 has been identified as the hottest star observed, ever. KPD 0005+5106 lives in the globular cluster M4, 7,200 light years away, and astronomers have always been intrigued by this stellar lightweight as its emissions have previously hinted it was quite toasty. Now, astronomers using data from the defunct NASA Far-Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer (FUSE), have studied the white dwarf in more detail. KPD 0005+5106 emits radiation in the far-ultraviolet, indicating that its surface has a temperature of 200,000K. This is an unprecedented discovery, far-ultraviolet emissions are usually reserved for superheated stellar coronae. It may be small, but it’s a record-breaker
Continue reading “Small but Mighty: KPD 0005+5106, the 200,000K White Dwarf”

Yet Another Fireball and Explosion, Over Colorado

Video of the fireball event over Colorado (Chris Peterson)
Video of the fireball event over Colorado (Chris Peterson)

Early this morning, a huge explosion lit up the Colorado skies. According to one observatory that videoed the event with its ever-watching all-sky camera, the fireball (or bolide) peak brightness (magnitude -18) exceeded the brightness of a full Moon 100 times. An awesome event. The Cloudbait Observatory, near Denver, is calling on eye-witnesses to submit their reports so possible meteorite fragments can be found on the ground. Only last month, a similar effort resulted in Canadian meteorite hunters finding over two dozen fragments from the Saskatchewan fireball.

For all the information about the Colorado event, check out my Universe Today article Exploding Colorado Fireball, 100 Times Brighter than the Moon (Video).

I must admit though (as one of my readers pointed out), it is surprising to hear about this recent flurry of large fireball events. Some of these meteoroids are as big as 10 tonnes (in the case of the Saskatchewan fireball), and scattered meteorites are being found on the ground (fortunately over sparsely populated regions). Are these recent series of fireball spottings down to improved observation techniques and a bit of luck? After all, the October fireball was observed directly over several all-sky cameras dedicated to spotting meteors; the November fireball was seen by a huge number of people in cities across the Saskatchewan/Alberta border and last night’s fireball appeared above another dedicated meteor all-sky camera.

A few of these events are expected every year, so this is certainly nothing to be concerned about, we’re just getting better at observing these transient events…

Moon, Venus, Jupiter Conjunction Dazzles California

Tonight is a very special night. Three celestial bodies clustered together in the sky, signifying a rare conjunction between the Moon, Venus and Jupiter. If you missed it, you’ll have to wait five years until the natural satellite of the Earth and two planets align in a similar pattern again in 2013.

Having been a frustrated astronomer for many years, I decided to get outside to investigate the conjunction over California for myself. Sure enough, from dusk, I could see a bright, thin crescent Moon with two very bright dots to the right and below in the southwest. The same scene has been repeated across many nations, but from my perspective I was able to capture the moment with some basic equipment and a very steady hand (plus some folded business cards)…
Continue reading “Moon, Venus, Jupiter Conjunction Dazzles California”

The Search For Life, What’s the Point?

Another mission, another brave “search for life”…

Is it me, or does virtually every robotic foray into space have some ET-searching component attached? In the case of Mars exploration, every lander and rover’s prime directive is find life, evidence of past life, potential for life or the building blocks of life. Even the very first man-made artefact to land (crash) on the planet, the 1971 Soviet Mars 2 mission, was designed to find organic compounds and… any sign of life.

On writing an article yesterday (“Wasteful” Sample Storage Box Removed from Mars Science Laboratory), I started to think that we might just be trying a little too hard and spending too much money on this endeavour. Perhaps there’s another way for us to work out if we are, indeed, an interplanetary (possibly intergalactic?) oasis, or a component of a biological cosmic zoo…
Continue reading “The Search For Life, What’s the Point?”

Another Exoplanet Candidate Identified by ESO

It would appear that yet another extrasolar planet has been directly observed!

Only last week, the Hubble Space Telescope released news that it had spotted an exoplanet orbiting the star Fomalhaut. This is the first ever direct observation of an exoplanet in optical wavelengths. On the same day, joint observations by the ground-based (adaptive optics-powered) Keck II and Gemini infrared telescopes discovered a collection of three large alien worlds orbiting a star catalogued as HR 8799.

Today, a completely different observatory appears to have discovered yet another exoplanet orbiting the hot star Beta Pictoris (in the constellation of Pictor). European Southern Observatory (ESO) astronomers have directly imaged β Pictoris b, an alien planet orbiting 8 AU from its host star.

A phenomenal achievement considering β Pictoris is over 63 light years away…
Continue reading “Another Exoplanet Candidate Identified by ESO”

Alien Worlds: Extrasolar Planets Imaged for First Time

Two of the three confirmed planets orbiting HR 8799 indicated as
Two of the three confirmed planets orbiting HR 8799 indicated as “b” and “c” on the image above. “b” is the ~7 Jupiter-mass planet orbiting at about 70 AU, “c” is the ~10 Jupiter-mass planet orbiting the star at about 40 AU. Due to the brightness of the central star, it has been blocked and appears blank in this image to increase visibility of the planets (Gemini Observatory)

The day has finally come. We now have direct, infrared and optical observations of planets orbiting other stars. Yesterday, reports from two independent sources surfaced, one from the Gemini and Keck II observatories and the second from the Hubble Space Telescope. Brace yourself for an awe-inspiring display of planets orbiting two stars…

The Gemini/Keck observations were carried out using adaptive optics technology to correct in real-time for atmospheric turbulence. The stunning images of a multiple planetary star system were then constructed from infrared emissions (the image, top, was constructed by Keck II as a follow-up to to the Gemini observations). The system in question is centred around a star called HR 8799, approximately 130 light years from Earth and in the constellation of Pegasus. The entire press release can be found at the Gemini observatory site, where they give the discovery a full run-down.

On the same day, the Hubble Space Telescope team also released images of one extrasolar planet, only this time in optical wavelengths. Although the exoplanet in Hubble’s images is less obvious than the infrared Gemini/Keck II images, incredible detail has been attained, showing a ring of dust around the star Fomalhaut (located in the constellation of Piscis Austrinus). Fomalhaut is 25 light years away and the star’s daughter planet (Fomalhaut b) is only a little under 3 Jupiter masses.

Estimated to be no more than three times Jupiter's mass, the planet, called Fomalhaut b, orbits the bright southern star Fomalhaut, located 25 light-years away in the constellation Piscis Austrinus (NASA/ESA)
Estimated to be no more than three times Jupiter’s mass, the planet, called Fomalhaut b, orbits the bright southern star Fomalhaut, located 25 light-years away in the constellation Piscis Austrinus (NASA/ESA)

For more news on these discoveries, check out the Gemini/Keck II press release and the Hubble announcement. I’ll leave the ground-breaking announcement to the guys who have spent many years working to achieve this monumental goal.

Wow.

Sources: Gemini, ESA

Strangest Kuiper Belt Objects: The Top Five

From Pluto, looking at its icy moons in the Kuiper belt (NASA)

The Kuiper belt is strange. Most of this strangeness probably comes from the fact that we are only just beginning to uncover this mysterious region of the Solar System. Unlike the Oort Cloud which (possibly) lies beyond 3 × 1012 km away (over 20,000 AU, or a whopping 0.3 light years), we can actually observe the objects inside the Kuiper belt as, compared to the Oort Cloud, the Kuiper belt is on our interplanetary doorstep.

But that doesn’t mean it’s close. The Kuiper belt exists in a region of space 30–55 AU from the Sun; this is where Pluto lives (as Pluto itself is a “Kuiper belt object”, or KBO). As astronomical techniques become more advanced however, we are able to discover more KBOs in the zoo of icy-rocky bodies that live in this region.

Having just written about an oddball pair of “highly split” KBOs, I feel compelled to list my top five favourite KBOs. Here are my favourites, as some are really funny-lookin’ and others have some serious personal issues…
Continue reading “Strangest Kuiper Belt Objects: The Top Five”

Got It! Aftermath of Asteroid 2008 TC3 Impact Spotted

The long-lasting persistent train of the 2008 TC3 re-entry on October 7th (NASA)
The long-lasting persistent train of the 2008 TC3 re-entry on October 7th (NASA)

At long last, we have visual evidence of the 2008 TC3 impact over the remote Sudanese skies. Admittedly, it’s not a video of the dazzling fireball ploughing though the upper atmosphere, before detonating with the energy of a small nuclear weapon, but it is a great picture of the smoky remnant after the explosion.

A noctilucent cloud after the launch of a Delta rocket (Flickr)
A noctilucent cloud after the launch of a Delta rocket (Flickr)

The meteorite train seen in the image above has been sheared and twisted by high altitude winds, leaving the snake-like pattern suspended in the air. The tenuous debris reflects the dawn sunlight, in a not-so-dissimilar way to the noctilucent cloud produced after a rocket launch (pictured left).

For more on today’s uncovering of the October 7th image (above), check out my Universe Today article. For more information on the first ever predicted asteroid impact, check out my collection of articles on Astroengine.com (tag: “2008 TC3”).

Pinhole Camera Solargraphy

The Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol, a single 6-month exposure solargraph (© Justin Quinnell)
The Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol, a single 6-month exposure solargraph (© Justin Quinnell)

Armed with the most basic photography device and plenty of time, Justin Quinnell has captured some of the most unique and entrancing views of the Sun over my hometown of Bristol. When I first saw this image, the iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge instantly jumped out at me. It took me a while to figure out what was going on, but after getting engrossed in Justin’s website all about pinhole photography, I soon realised this was a six-month exposure, capturing the Sun’s motion from winter solstice (December 21st, 2007) to summer solstice (June 19th, 2008)…
Continue reading “Pinhole Camera Solargraphy”