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South Pole telescope Sees First Light.

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South pole telescope.
South pole telescope. Image credit: NSF.

Telescopes located on the Earth suffer from having to peer through our thick atmosphere. That's why they're located at high altitudes, where the air is cold and clear. In fact, the best place on Earth to locate a telescope is in Antarctica - the air doesn't get any colder or clearer.

The newly constructed South Pole telescope (SPT) was pointed to the skies for the first time on February 16, capturing images of Jupiter. This was just a test. When it gets up and running, the SPT will help Astronomers understand dark energy's influence on the expansion of the Universe, and precisely measure the cosmic microwave background radiation.

Unlike Hubble, or the major visible light observatories here on Earth, the South Pole telescope images at the submillimetre spectrum. This is a region in between radio waves and Infrared radiation. Using submillimetre observations, Astronomers can detect molecular clouds, map Galaxy clusters, and chart the cosmic microwave background radiation.

The telescope stands 22.8 meters (75 feet) tall, measures 10 meters (33 feet) across and weighs 254 metric tons (280 tons). Getting it to Antarctica was the problem. Every part of the instrument had to be able to fit inside a C130 cargo plane. They were shipped from New Zealand, and then constructed on site during the relatively warm Antarctic summer.

Original Source: NSF News Release

Europe Approves its Mercury Mission

Artist impression of BepiColumbo. Image credit: ESA.
February 27th, 2007: Artist impression of BepiColumbo. Image credit: ESA.

Although NASA has its Messenger spacecraft headed towards the planet Mercury, the European Space Agency is planning a mission of its own called BepiColumbo. The agency recently announced that it has 'adopted' the BepiColumbo mission, officially greenlighting its development.

Developed in partnership with Japan, BepiColumbo is scheduled to launch in August 2013, and will arrive 6 years later. The mission actually consists of two spacecraft: an orbiter for planetary studies, and another for magnetospheric studies.

The Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) will be developed by ESA, while the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO) will be created by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). A single vehicle will carry both to Mercury.

After their scientific missions wrap up, the two spacecraft will provide the most detailed study of Mercury ever performed.

Original Source: ESA News Release

NASA Reveals a Sample Lunar Base

Planetary surface habitat. Image credit: NASA.
February 27th, 2007: Planetary surface habitat. Image credit: NASA.

For the upcoming lunar return missions, the astronauts will be staying on the surface of the Moon far longer than they did during the Apollo. They'll need someplace safe to live.

NASA is currently planning that humans will set foot on the Moon again, starting in 2020. The first four-person crews will only stay for 7-days, but over time, as a lunar base builds up, more people will stay longer, eventually stretching missions out to 180 days.

The agency recently unveiled a prototype inflatable lunar module that the astronauts might call home. The 12-foot (3.65 meter) diameter inflatable structure is made of multiple layers of fabric.

Over the next few years, engineers will test out the inflatable habitat, to see if it's tough enough and provides the right amount of space and radiation shielding to provide astronauts with a good shelter on the Moon.

Original Source: NASA News Release

High Resolution Views of Comet McNaught's Nucleus

Central Comet McNaught. Image credit: ESO.
February 27th, 2007: Central Comet McNaught. Image credit: ESO.

Comet McNaught, one of the brightest comets in last few decades recently swept past the Sun, providing a beautiful show. Unfortunately, the Comet was so low to the horizon that only viewers in the Southern hemisphere were able to see its brightest point.

This low horizon view was a problem for Earth-based observatories as well. Many aren't able to look down towards the horizon, which is murky anyway from atmospheric turbulence.

The European Southern Observatory's New Technology telescope does have the ability to point down to the horizon, and was able to deliver this image of Comet McNaught's nucleus.

The photograph shows three spiral jets of material are pouring off the Comet as it rotates. Astronomers were able to analyze the chemicals in these jets and determine which were present in the comet's atmosphere.

Original Source: ESO News Release

Our Supermassive black hole Is a Natural Particle Accelerator

Artist impression of a supermassive black hole. Image credit: ESA.
February 27th, 2007: Artist impression of a supermassive black hole. Image credit: ESA.

Although the centre of the Milky Way is obscured by gas and dust, you can see right through using wavelengths other than the visible spectrum. Infrared is great, but it can also be revealed in gamma rays. And here's the strange thing, gamma rays are pouring out from the centre of our galaxy.

Since the centre of the Milky Way contains a supermassive black hole, Astronomers believe it's acting like a gigantic particle accelerator, smashing protons together and releasing high energy gamma rays.

Astronomers at The University of Arizona, Los Alamos National Laboratory and the University of Adelaide (Australia) think they understand the mechanism at work here. The intense magnetic field around the black hole accelerates protons and smashes them together. These collisions release a torrent of particles moving nearly the speed of light as well as the gamma rays we detect here on Earth.

The Astronomers developed a simulation, where ejected particles interact with material surrounding the supermassive black hole. They calculated the magnetic force required to impart these enormous particle velocities, and the energies released as they smash and interact with the surrounding material.

And we have a relatively quiet black hole. Just imagine what's happening what's happening around an actively feeding supermassive black hole.

Original Source: University of Arizona News Release

Universe: What's Up this Week: February 26 - March 4, 2007

Sombrero Galaxy. M104. Image credit: Hubble/Spitzer.
February 26th, 2007: Sombrero Galaxy. M104. Image credit: Hubble/Spitzer.

Monday, February 26 - Today is the birthdate of Camille Flammarion. Born in 1842, he became a widely read author in astronomy and conceived the idea that we were not alone - the idea of extraterrestrial life. Yet, Flammarion was just a little bit more than the great-grandfather of SETI. In 1877, Flammarion had an unusual chance that most of us only dream of. He had his hands on a personal copy and notes of the Messier Catalog. Using it as a reference, he later revised it, but his studies led him to identify M102 with NGC 5866 before 1917. By 1921, Flammarion had added M104 - now known as NGC 4594 - to the catalog as well, and it became the first of many additions.

This evening will be your opportunity to have a look at the crater named for Flammarion. Located just south of Sinus Medii, the walk isn't an easy one because the Southern Highlands contain so many craters. How about some help?

(1) Flammarion, (2) Herschel, (3) Ptolemaeus, (4) Alphonsus, (5) Davy, (6) Alpetragius, (7) Arzachel, (8) Thebit, (9) Purbach, (10) Lacaille, (11) Blanchinus, (12) Delaunay, (13) Faye, (14) Donati, (15) Airy, (16) Argelander, (17) Vogel, (18) Parrot, (19) Klein, (20) Albategnius, (21) Muller, (22) Halley, (23) Horrocks, (24) Hipparchus, (25) Sinus Medii

After that, it's time to relax and enjoy the Delta Leonid meteor shower. Burning through our atmosphere at speeds of up to 24 kilometers per second, these slow travelers will seem to radiate from a point around the middle of Leo's 'back.' The fall rate is rather slow at around 5 per hour, but they are still worth keeping a watch for!

Tuesday, February 27 - Today is the birthday of Bernard Lyot. Born in 1897, Lyot went on to become the inventor of the coronagraph in 1930. By all accounts, Lyot was a wonderful and generous man who sadly died of a heart attack when returning from a trip to view a total eclipse.

Tonight's bright skies are brought to you by the Moon! Have you noticed how difficult it is to see any stars belonging to Monoceros with these conditions? Don't worry. We'll be back. For now, let's continue onwards with our lunar studies as we locate the emerging 'Sea Of Islands.'

Mare Insularum will be partially revealed tonight as one of the most prominent of lunar craters - Copernicus - now comes into view. While only a small section of this reasonably young mare is now visible southeast of Copernicus, the lighting will be just right to spot its many different colored lava flows. To the northeast is a lunar club challenge: Sinus Aestuum. Latin for the Bay of Billows, this mare-like region has an approximate diameter of 290 kilometers, and its total area is about the size of the state of New Hampshire. Containing almost no features, this area is low albedo - providing very little surface reflectivity.
Now let's take a look and see what we can identify!

(1) Mons Wolf, (2) Eratosthenes, (3) Gay-Lussac, (4) Montes Carpatus, (5) Copernicus, (6) Reinhold, (7) Mare Insularum, (8) Gambart, (9) Apollo 14 landing site, (10) Frau Mauro, (11) Bonpland, (12) Parry, (13) Lalande, (14) Ptolemaeus, (15) Herschel, (16) Flammarion, (17) Mosting, (18) Sinus Medii, (19) Triesnecker, (20) Murchison, (21) Pallas, (22) Bode, (23) Ukert, (24) Sinus Aestuum, (25) Stadius

Happy Hunting!

Wednesday, February 28 - With the Moon moving further east each night it has now passed Pollux and is headed towards Saturn. Even though it's not full yet, can you see the effect that it has on nearby stars? Now that it is further from Orion and Taurus, those primary stars are beginning to appear again - yet there are still none visible to the unaided eye in Monoceros. Even 4.6 magnitude Beta doesn't show!

Tonight let's return again to the lunar surface to study how the terminator has moved and take a close look at the way features change as the Sun brightens the moonscape. Can you still see Langrenus? How about Theophilus, Cyrillus and Catharina? Does Posidonius still look the same? Each night features further east become brighter and harder to distinguish - yet they also change in subtle and unexpected ways. We'll look at that in the days ahead, but tonight let's walk the terminator as one of the most beautiful features has now come into view - 'The Bay of Rainbows.'

Sinus Iridum's C-shape is easily recognizable in even small binoculars - yet there are a wonderland of small details in and around the area for the small telescope that we'll study as the year goes by. Take the chart with you tonight and see how many of these features you can identify and add to your lunar challenges!

(1) Alpine Valley, (2) Plato, (3) Mare Frigoris, (4) Philolaus, (5) Anaximenes, (6) J. Herschel, (7) Sinus Roris, (8) Bianchini, (9) Sinus Iridum, (10) Promontorium Heraclides, (11) Promontorium LaPlace, (12) Helicon, (13) Leverrier, (14) Straight Range, (15) Mons Pico, (16) Mons Piton, (17) Montes Spitzbergen, (18) Archimedes, (19) Apollo 15 landing area, (20) Mare Imbrium

Thursday, March 1 - In 1966 Venera 3 became the first craft to touch another world as it impacted Venus. Although its communications failed before it could transmit data, it was a milestone achievement. If you're up before dawn, be sure to have a look a Venus and say Spaseba!

George Abell was born on this day in 1927. Abell was the man responsible for cataloging 2712 clusters of Galaxies from the Palomar sky survey, which was completed in 1958. Using these plates, Abell put forth the idea that the grouping of such clusters distinguished the arrangement of matter in the universe. He developed the 'luminosity function,' which shows relationship between brightness and number of members in each cluster, allowing you to infer their distances.

Abell also discovered a number of planetary nebulae and developed the theory (along with Peter Goldreich) of their evolution from red giants. Abell was a fascinating lecturer and a developer of many television series dedicated to explaining science and astronomy in a fun and easy to understand format. He was also a president and member of the Board of Directors for the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, as well as serving in the American Astronomical Society, the cosmology Commission of the International Astronomical Union, and he accepted editorship of the Astronomical Journal just before he died.

If you live in the Americas, be on alert tonight for the Moon occulting Saturn. This event crosses international date lines!!

Friday, March 2 - Celestial Alert! Today is going to be very unusual as two occultation events are about to occur - one with Saturn, and the other with Regulus.

At roughly 02:21:00 UT a great many observers the world over will get a unique opportunity as the Moon slips over Saturn. While no special equipment is needed to see the event, binoculars will allow you to see the bright planet right up until the last second. For telescope users, here's an opportunity you won't want to miss.

Many observers will use this opportunity to spot an exterior ring on Saturn, while others will take critical timings to better understand the Moon's topography and position. If conditions are right, you may even get to see one of the 'Ring King's' satellites occulted as well.

Did you know you can take pictures with very little practice and even with a disposable camera? This method is called 'parfocal,' and can be done with any 35mm camera - or a camcorder! Focus for 20/20 vision in a wide field, low power eyepiece and circle your thumb and index finger around the top of the barrel taking care not to touch the interior lens. Then 'mate' the camera lens to the eyepiece, hold as steady as possible - and shoot! The results can sometimes be very astonishing. For camcorders, this is exceptionally pleasing because you can use both the focus and zoom of the camera to get more details.

An occultation of Saturn is well worth trying!

At roughly 22:00 UT, Regulus will also be occulted - making this a very rare event and a great deal more dependent on your location. Be very sure to check IOTA information which will give precise times and locations for your area. You won't want to miss it!

Saturday, March 3 - Tonight will be another astronomical celebration as western Australia, Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas have an opportunity to view a total lunar eclipse with totality lasting one hour and fourteen minutes. Be aware this event crosses international date lines and those in the Far East will see this occur in the early morning hours of March 4 as the Moon is setting. Viewers more centrally located, such as those in Africa and western Europe will have a view of the entire eclipse, while the eastern Americas will see it in progress as the Moon rises. For observers in the western portions of the Americas, you will see the event ending as the Moon rises in your location.

While it might not seem like a big deal, a total lunar eclipse is a wonderful example of the precision of orbital paths. The relationship between the Sun, Earth and Moon now become apparent as our satellite passes through our cone of shadow - instead of just above or just below. A round body, such as a planet, casts a shadow 'cone' through space. When it's at Earth, the cone is widest at 13,000 kilometers in diameter, yet by the time it reaches the Moon it has narrowed to only 9,200 kilometers. Considering the distance to the Moon is 384,401 kilometers, that's hitting a very narrow corridor in astronomical terms!

Regardless of whether or not you can experience the whole event, there is something very wonderful about viewing an eclipse and watching the clockwork movements of orbit. It is both enlightening and spiritual.

Enjoy this peaceful experience'

Sunday, March 4 - In 1835, Giovanni Schiaparelli opened his eyes for the very first time and opened ours with his accomplishments! As the director of the Milan Observatory, Schiaparelli (and not Percival Lowell) was the fellow who popularized the term 'Martian canals' somewhere around the year 1877. Far more importantly, Schiaparelli was the man who made the connection between the orbits of meteoroid streams and the orbits of comets almost eleven years earlier!

While the excitement of the last two days are going to be hard to best, let's use the very brief time before the Moon overpowers the sky and have a look about a fistwidth north-northwest of Sirius - for Beta Monocerotis.

Discovered by Sir William Herschel in 1781, Beta is perhaps one of the most outstanding triple systems in the sky, with each of its three bright, white components near equal magnitude. Residing about 100-200 light-years away, these identical spectral type stars are separated by no more than 400 AU and don't appear to have changed positions since measured by Struve in 1831.

Although you won't be able to split this system with binoculars, even a small telescope will pick apart their brilliancy and make Beta a star to remember!

A Baby Picture of the Sun

Eagle Nebula. Image credit: Hubble/Chandra.
February 26th, 2007: Eagle Nebula. Image credit: Hubble/Chandra.

Obviously there's no way to see what our Sun looked like when it was still forming billions of years ago, but you can do the next best thing. Find a newly forming star with very similar mass and chemical constituents, and see how it's starting out.

Astronomers have identified a newly forming star in the nearby Eagle nebula (that's the nebula where the famous Pillars of Creation can be found) located about 7,000 light years from Earth. The object - dubbed E42 - is at the earliest stage of formation for a sunlike star that Astronomers have ever found.

Our Sun was thought to form in a nebula very similar to the Eagle Nebula. The cloud of gas and dust collapsed about 5 billion years ago through ultraviolet pressure from nearby stars, as well as passing shockwaves from nearby supernova explosions.

So let's sit back, and watch this baby star for another 5 billions years or so. They grow up so fast.

Original Source: University of Colorado at Boulder News Release

Some Galaxies Are Made Almost Entirely of Dark Matter

Dark matter distribution. Image credit: Max-Planck Institute for Astrophysics.
February 26th, 2007: Dark matter distribution. Image credit: Max-Planck Institute for Astrophysics.

When we think of a galaxy, we think of our own Milky Way or perhaps Andromeda; a majestic spiral containing hundreds of billions of stars. Or maybe we think of an irregular galaxy, not so majestic-looking, but still made of regular stuff, like stars, planets' people.

But new research shows that there are Galaxies out there which are almost completely comprised of dark matter. They're called dwarf spheroidals, and they only contain a few stars and almost no gas. Instead, they've got an overwhelming amount of dark matter, whose gravity compacts what few stars it has into a roughly spherical shape. And because they don't have many stars, they're hard to see, even when they're nearby.

An international team of researchers has developed a simulation to explain how Galaxies like this could form. They used supercomputers to calculate how Galaxies interact. When a smaller Galaxy collides with a much larger galaxy, friction causes the gas to slow down and be stripped out a galaxy, while the stars and Dark matter continue on.

Without this gas, the Galaxy can't continue making stars. It's only got the stars that had formed before the collision. A massive Galaxy can also strip away stars and material through a process called 'tidal shocking'. Between these two effects, you can end up with a Galaxy devoid of regular matter - all that's left is dark matter.

Original Source: Stanford News Release

Ulysses Sees a Surprise at the Sun's South Pole

Ulysses spacecraft and the Sun. Image credit: ESA.
February 26th, 2007: Ulysses spacecraft and the Sun. Image credit: ESA.

Our Sun is very close to the calmest point of its 11-year cycle of activity, what scientists call the 'Solar Minimum'. But that doesn't mean it's totally quiet. In mid-December, NASA/ESA's Ulysses spacecraft encountered a torrent of particles bursting from the Sun's southern pole.

This is the third time Ulysses has passed over the Sun's southern pole; the previous years were 1994 and 2000. But in this latest pass, the Sun is supposed to be in its solar minimum, where Sunspot and flare activities are at their lowest. satellites and observers here on Earth saw plenty of activity around the Sun's equator, but the surprise is that Ulysses saw activity too - intense bursts of particles coming from the pole.

During Ulysses' previous passes, the Sun was in its solar maximum, so it wasn't a surprise to see activity above the pole. But to see activity during the solar minimum was quite unexpected. scientists hope to get to an answer during this southern pole flyby.

Original Source: ESA News Release

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