November 2013 Eclipse

Bloomberg Photos Best Of The Year 2012On this coming November 3rd, the people of the Africa will be treated once again (if that’s the right word) to a solar eclipse. And the good folks at Astronomers Without Borders – an independent outreach program with global reach – will be doing all they can to make sure that students and sky watchers can safety watch it take place. And they are looking for help…

Basically, they are looking for donations so they can send tens of thousands of eclipse glasses to schools in Africa just in time for the eclipse. In addition to allowing for students to safely observe a major astronomical event, it is also a rare opportunity to expose students to science in a region where science resources are often non-existent.

SOLAR-ECLIPSE-2013-pathAs Mike Simmons, who leads AWB, told Universe Today in an email interview:

We’re working with the IAU’s Office of Astronomy for Development who has contacts working with schools and able to distribute the glasses to them. The opportunity for this came up late so we’re working very hard to make it happen in the short time we have left.

According to the AWB website, schools have been identified and vetted by partner organizations in each country in Africa, and distribution networks have been verified. Every donated pair of eclipse glasses WILL reach a student for use for the eclipse, and will be given by the AWB free of charge.

SOLAR-ECLIPSE-2013-kidsThe International Astronomical Union’s Office of Astronomy for Development, which is based in Cape Town, South Africa, is providing invaluable support and assistance through their many contacts across Africa. But alas, the program depends entirely on private donations.  However, as Simmons explained, they are confident they can raise the money in time:

There’s no question we can get all the donations that are needed as long as we get the word out in time. We do probably a half-million dollars in programs each year based on the hard work of passionate amateur astronomers and educators around the world,” Simmons said, “all on way less than $25,000 a year.

If you’re interested in pledging a donation, simply go to AWB’s website by clicking here. Each pair goes for $1 to $4, depending on how many you want to buy. As for those of us who don’t live in Africa, I guess we’ll just to wait until Monday, August 21, 2017, when the next Solar Eclipse that will be visible from North America will take place.


News From Space: IAU Revises Stance on Naming Planets

alien-worldGood news everyone! According to the International Astronomic Union, the public can now participate in the naming of new exoplanets. What’s more, they can be popular names like kinds found in science fiction, assuming they are appropriate and the public is behind it. This represents a big change in terms of IAU policy, which previously reserved the right to give names to newly discovered bodies outside of our Solar System.

As recently as late March, 2013, the IAU’s official word on naming exoplanets was, “the IAU sees no need and has no plan to assign names to these objects at the present stage of our knowledge.” Their rationale was since there is seemingly going to be so many exoplanets, it will be difficult to name them all.

IAU_exosBut then, on March 24th, the IAU added on their website:

…the IAU greatly appreciates and wishes to acknowledge the increasing interest from the general public in being more closely involved in the discovery and understanding of our Universe. As a result in 2013 the IAU Commission 53 Extrasolar Planets and other IAU members will be consulted on the topic of having popular names for exoplanets, and the results will be made public on the IAU website.

This new decision follows from an event earlier this year where the SETI Institute and the space company Uwingu organized their own campaigns for creating popular names of objects in space. Both events were wildly popular with the general public, but generated some controversy. For one, the IAU issued a statement regarding the contests saying that while they welcomed the public’s interest, the IAU has the last word.

Pluto-System_720-580x344For example, the SETI institute’s contest, “Space Rocks”, was intended to name two newly discovered moons around Pluto. Though the name “Vulcan” was the top contender for one of them, and even got a nod from William Shatner, the IAU overruled their decision and went with the name “Styx” instead. Additionally, the IAU took issue with the “selling” of names, referring to the fact that Uwingu charged a fee to take part in their contest.

However, given public interest in the process and the fact that other bodies might begin privatizing the process, the IAU has altered its position on these matters and opened up the naming process to the public. The new rules, which were passed this summer, now allow individuals to suggest names of exoplanets and planetary satellites (moons) via email to the IAU.

gliese-581.jpgThose looking to make a contribution to naming newly discovered planets and moons are asked to abide by the following criteria:

  1. Prior to any public naming initiative the IAU should be contacted from the start by Letter of Intent sent to the IAU General Secretary
  2. The process should be submitted in the form of a proposal to the IAU by an organization
  3. The organization should list its legal or official representatives and its goals, and explain the reasons for initiating the process for naming a particular object or set of objects
  4. The process cannot request nor make reference to any revenues, for whatever purpose
  5. The process must guarantee a wide international participation
  6. The public names proposed (whether by individuals or in a naming campaign) should follow the naming rules and restrictions adopted for Minor Bodies of the Solar System, by the IAU and by the Minor Planet Center.

Among other rules cited in their new policy are that proposed names should be 16 characters or less in length, pronounceable in as many languages as possible, non-offensive in any language or culture, and that names of individuals, places or events principally known for political or military activities are unsuitable. Also, the names must have the formal agreement of the discoverers.

KeplerThis about face has its share of supporters and critics alike. Whereas people who support it generally see it as a sign that we are entering into an era of open and democratic space exploration. the critics tend to stress the contradictions and ambiguities in the new policy. Whereas the IAU previously claimed it had the final word on the naming process, their new stance appears to indicate that this is no longer the case.

In addition, companies like Uwingu are now free to participate in the naming of planetary bodies, which means that their contest to name Pluto’s moon “Vulcan” would now be legitimate under the new framework. Many people, such as astronomer and Uwingu CEO Alan Stern, are wondering if the new rules will apply retroactively since they were previously forbidden from having any input.

kepler22b.jpgAs for me, this puts me in mind of my own attempts to name real or fictitious exoplanets. Sadly, since it this was done for the sake of writing fiction, they would have no legal standing, but the process was still fun and got me thinking… If we are to begin exploring and colonizing planets outside of our Solar System, how will we go about naming them?

Now it seems there is a process in place for just such a thing, one which will assign actual names instead of bland designations. And it appears that this process will be a trade off between scientific organizations and public input, either through campaigns or contests. And I imagine once we start breaking ground on new worlds, settlers and shareholders will have a thing or two to say as well!

Planet Microsoft… Planet Starbucks… Planet Walmart… I shudder to think!


News From Space: MESSENGER and Mercury

messengerWith Curiosity’s ongoing research and manned missions being planned for Mars by 2030, it seems that the other planets of the Solar System are being sadly neglected these days. Thankfully, the MESSENGER spacecraft, which has been conducting flyby’s of Mercury since 2008 and orbiting it since 2011, is there to remind us of just how interesting and amazing the planet closest to our sun truly is.

And in recent weeks, there has been a conjunction of interesting news stories about Earth’s scorched and pockmarked cousin. The first came in March 22nd when it was revealed that of the many, many pictures taken by the satellite (over 150,000 and counting), some captured a different side of Mercury, one which isn’t so rugged and scorched.

Messenger_smooth1The pictures in question were of a natural depression located northeast of the Rachmaninoff basin, where the walls, floor and upper surfaces appear to be smooth and irregularly shaped. What’s more, the  velvety texture observed is the result of widespread layering of fine particles. Scientists at NASA deduced from this that, unlike many features on Mercury’s  ancient surface, this rimless depression wasn’t caused by an impact from above but rather explosively escaping lava from below.

In short, the depression was caused by an explosive volcanic event, which left a hole in the surface roughly 36 km (22 miles) across at its widest. It is surrounded by a smooth blanket of high-reflectance material, explosively ejected volcanic particles from a pyroclastic eruption, that spread over the surface like snow. And thanks to Mercury’s lack of atmosphere, the event was perfectly preserved.


Other similar vents have been found on Mercury before, like the heart-shaped depression observed in the Caloris basin (seen above). Here too, the smooth, bright surface material was a telltale sign of a volcanic outburst, as were the rimless, irregular shapes of the vents. However, this is the first time such a surface feature has been captured in such high-definition.

And then just three days later, on March 25th to be exact, Mercury began to experience its greatest elongation from the Sun for the year of 2013. In astronomy, this refers to the angle between the Sun and the planet, with Earth as the reference point. When a planet is at its greatest elongation, it is farthest from the Sun as viewed from Earth, so its view is also best at that point.

Mercury_31-03-13_0630What this means is that for the remainder of the month, Mercury will be in prime position to be observed in the night sky, for anyone living in the Northern Hemisphere that is. Given its position relative to the Sun and us, the best time to observe it would be during hours of dusk when the stars are still visible. And, in a twist which that may hold cosmic significance for some, people are advised to pay special attention during the morning of Easter Day, when the shining “star” will be most visible low in the dawn sky.

And then just three days ago, a very interesting announcement was made. It seems that with MESSENGERS ongoing surveys of the Hermian surface, nine new craters have been identified and are being given names. On March 26th, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) approved the proposed names, which were selected in honor of deceased writers, artists and musicians following the convention established by the IAU for naming features on the innermost world.


The announcement came after MESSENGER put the finishing touches on mapping the surface of Mercury earlier this month. A good majority of these features were established at Mercury’s southern polar region, one of the last areas of the planet to be mapped by the satellite. And after a submission and review process, the IAU decided on the following names of the new craters:

Donelaitis, named after 18th century Lithuanian poet Kristijonas Donelaitis, author of The Seasons and other tales and fables.

Petofi, named after 19th century Hungarian poet Sandor Petofi, who wrote Nemzeti dal which inspired the Hungarian Revolution of 1848.

Roerich, named after early 20th century Russian philosopher and artist Nicholas Roerich, who created the Roerich Pact of 1935 which asserted the neutrality of scientific, cultural and educational institutions during time of war.

Hurley, named after the 20th century Australian photographer James Francis Hurley, who traveled to Antarctica and served with Australian forces in both World Wars.

Lovecraft, named after 20th century American author H.P. Lovecraft, a pioneer in horror, fantasy and science fiction.

Alver, named after 20th century Estonian author Betti Alver who wrote the 1927 novel Mistress in the Wind.

Flaiano, named after 20th century Italian novelist and screenwriter Ennio Flaiano who was a pioneer Italian cinema and contemporary of Federico Fellini.

Pahinui, named after mid-20th century Hawaiian musician Charles Phillip Kahahawai Pahinui, influential slack-key guitar player and part of the “Hawaiian Renaissance” of island culture in the 1970’s.

L’Engle, named after American author Madeleine L’Engle, who wrote the young adult novels An Acceptable Time, A Swiftly Tilting Planet & A Wind in the Door. L’Engle passed away in 2007.

Crater_names_August2012-580x376The campaign to name Mercury’s surface features has been ongoing since MESSENGER performed its first flyby in January of 2008. Some may recall that in August of last year, a similar process took place for the nine craters identified on Mercury’s North Pole. Of these, the names of similarly great literary, artistic and scientific contributors were selected, not the least of which was Mr. J RR Tolkien himself, author of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit!

It’s no secret that the MESSENGER spacecraft has been a boon for scientists. Not only has it allowed for the complete mapping of the planet Mercury and provided an endless stream of high resolution photos for scientists to pour over, it has also contributed to a greater understanding of what our Solar System looked like when it was still in early formation.

Given all this, it is somewhat sad that MESSENGER is due to stand down at the end of the month, and that the next mission to Mercury won’t be until 2022 with the planned arrival of the joint ESA/JAXA BepiColombo mission. But of course, we can expect plenty of revelations and stories to emerge from all the scientific data collected on this latest trip. And I’m sure Mars will be more than willing to provide ample entertainment until 2022 comes to pass!

While we’re waiting, be sure to check out this informative video of MESSENGER’s contributions over the past few years:

Source:, (2), (3)