Halloween Comets!

No fewer than four bright-ish comets greet skywatchers an hour before the start of dawn. From upper left counterclockwise: C/2013 R1 Lovejoy, 2P/Encke, C/2012 X1 and ISON. Credits: Gerald Rhemann, Damian Peach, Gianluca Masi and Gerald RhemannToday, the early morning was greeted by the arrival of not one, not two, not three, but four comets! And interestingly enough, even astronomers were surprised. For months now, they have known that the comets ISON and 2P/Encke would be gracing the morning sky on October 31st, but no one predicted that they’d be joined by C/2013 R1 (Lovejoy), and C/2012 X1 (LINEAR) as well.

These two comets – the former being discovered by  Australian amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy back in September and the latter being a somewhat obscure character, presented a rare opportunity to stargazers everywhere. The appearance of four comets at the same time in the night sky is a rare phenomenon indeed. The fact that it coincides with Halloween? Well, the word spooky comes to mind…

https://i2.wp.com/d1jqu7g1y74ds1.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Halloween-comets-4_edited-11.jpgThe appearance of C/2012 X1 (LINEAR) was especially surprising given how sudden it was. In the past few days, the otherwise obscure comet has brightened by a factor of more than 200. Almost overnight, a comet found on precious few observing lists became bright enough to see in binoculars. Hence, comet trackers all over the world were sure to get up extra early to see it. But brightest of all was Comet Lovejoy, which reached magnitude 8.

As for Encke and C/2012 X1, astronomers were well prepared for their arrival. Encke’s appearance is predictable, since it treks around the sun every 3.3 years like clockwork and is often well placed for viewing. Because of its short period, dedicated comet watchers meet up with it a half dozen or more times during their lives. And due to its brightness, which tends to fall into the magnitude 7.5-8 range, binoculars are often all one needs to see it.

https://i0.wp.com/d1jqu7g1y74ds1.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/ISON-Damian-Oct.-27-580x403.jpgComet C/2012 X1 is not usually visible in the night sky. But thanks to an eruption of fresh, dust-laden ices from its surface that blasted into space to form a gigantic glowing sphere that vaulted the comet’s magnitude 250 times to a voluminous 7.5, astronomers were expecting it to make an appearance alongside Encke this Autumn.

For those still interested in spotting these shooting stars, Comet Lovejoy will continue to brighten throughout November to the point where it can be seen by the naked eye. Small telescope users will continue to be able to see the comet with ease, as well as the gas tail that it is developing. Encke will also reach its peak magnitude for viewing by Nov. 21st as it chases the into the glare of morning twilight.

All you need is a telescope, a good set of binoculars, or a keen pair of eyes. And while we’re at it, I’d just like to remind people that this sort of conjunction does NOT portend doom! If anything, its a rare privilege, and should be considered a tiding of joy. The fact that it happens to fall on the spookiest of annual events, well that’s just pure coincidence!

Source: universetoday.com

I Saw Sunspots Today!

solar1Today, I achieved a personal first and got to see an astronomical phenomena that few people will. While attending an open house event at my local Aviation Museum, I managed to meet up with a man who had set up a stargazing station and was showcasing some serious equipment. After waiting my turn, I got to peer through his special telescope with a sun filter. And what I saw, as the title would suggest, was something truly amazing – sunspots!

As some may know, sunspots have remained something of a mystery to astronomers and philosophers until the Scientific Revolution of the 16th century. It was at this time that Galileo observed them using his own telescope, which he did by projecting the image onto sheets of paper and recording the imperfections in the light.

sunspots1The discovery was important in helping to disprove the prevailing theory that the Earth was at the center of the universe – aka. the Geocentric theory. Up until this time, European philosophers were living under the impression that the Sun, like all celestial bodies that were believed to orbit the Earth, was a perfect sphere. By showing it to be riddled with imperfections, Galileo placed an additional nail in the philosophical basis of this idea.

This in turn helped pave the way for the acceptance of Copernicus’ theory of a Heliocentric universe. As with his observations that Jupiter had its own set of moons, that the Moon itself did not have a polished crystalline surface, and that Copernicus’ theory resolved numerous logical inconsistencies in the other model, Galileo helped to establish the field of truly scientific astronomy.

sunspot_activityToday, I learned that observing sunspots continues to be a difficult thing, since direct observation with a telescope is impossible without sun filter. Not only that, but many people mistake high-magnification for high-power, which in turn leads to images that are not of the best quality. And observing them can by difficult since they go through cycles.

As the kind host of the solar observation explained, and this NASA graph shows, sunspot activity goes through a cycle that repeats every eleven years. As we are currently at the edge of a peek in the cycle, its prime time to get a look at sunspots in the sky. The last time anyone could get a good look was in 2001, and the next opportunity won’t come until 2023.

So I feel pretty privileged, both as a geeky, space-enthusiast and a regular person. If you know someone who has access to a telescope with a solar filter, or just happen to live near an observatory that conducts tours, get out there and spot those surface imperfections. I’m not exaggerating when I say its a rare treat!

Bad News From Space!

Kepler-telescope-580x448Between the Mars rovers, deep space probes, and long-term plans to mine asteroids and colonize Earth’s neighbors, there’s just no shortage of news from space these days. Unfortunately, not all of it is good. For instance, NASA recently announced that the Kepler space telescope, which was launched back in 2009 for the purpose of identifying Earth-like exoplanets, is suffering from malfunctions and may be broken down.

And in the course of its operational history, it did manage to identify a number of exoplanets that existed within the habitable zones of their parent stars. In fact, it had found a total of 2,740 candidate exoplanets spread across 2,046 stars systems, and a confirmed total of 132 that have the potential to support life. Unfortunately, during the early month of April during its weekly communication, NASA  found that the space observatory was in safe mode, a sign that something was amiss.

keplerAfter looking into the problem, they realized that it had lost its ability to precisely point toward stars because one of the reaction wheels – devices which enable the spacecraft to aim in different directions without firing thrusters – had failed. This was especially bad since last year an different wheel failed, meaning it only had two wheels remaining. The probe needs at least three working in order to properly aim itself, but now that seems impossible.

But the Kepler team said there are still possibilities of keeping the spacecraft in working order, or perhaps even finding other opportunities for different scientific pursuits. Either way, the team is not ready to throw in the towel on the telescope. And since NASA already approved to keep the mission going through 2016, a lot is still riding on it remaining functional.

Charles Sobeck, the Kepler deputy project manager, addressed the team’s efforts to get the telescope working again during their daily briefing earlier in May:

Initially, they did see some movement on the wheel but it quickly went back to zero speed, indicative of internal failure on the wheel. Our next step is to see what we can do to reduce the fuel consumption, as we would like to extend the fuel reserve as long as we can.

In terms of the malfunctioning wheel, he indicated that there are a few things they can still do to get it working again. One possibility is “jigging it” or running it in reverse.

We can try jiggling it, like you’d do with any wheel here on Earth, commanding it to move back and forth, so we can try to bring the wheel back in service. Or perhaps since wheel #2 hasn’t been turned on for eight months, it may come back if we turn it on. It will take us awhile to come up with a plan.

Sobeck also explained they are currently using thrusters to stabilize the spacecraft, and in its current mode, the onboard fuel will last for several months. But they hope to soon put the spacecraft into what is called a “Point Rest State” – a loosely-pointed, thruster-controlled state that minimizes fuels usage while providing a continuous X-band communication downlink. This ought to keep the fuel consumption down to the point where the telescope could keep going for several more years.

kepler47.jpgWhat’s more, the team also indicated that there is still terabytes of information gathered by the probe that has yet to be sifted through. They estimate that it will take at least two years for them to process it all and determine what other exoplanets exist nearby in our galaxy. And as Paul Hertz – NASA’s astrophysics director – put it, with the work it has already performed, Kepler has essentially carried out its task:

We’ll continue to analyze the data to get the science that Kepler was designed to do. Even though Kepler is in trouble, it has collected all the data necessary to answer its scientific objectives. Kepler is not the last exoplanet mission, but the first. It has been a great start to our path of exoplanet exploration.

In the end, its too soon to say if Kepler is deep in space (literally), or just experiencing a lull while her technicians get her back on track. And even if this does prove to be the end of her, the many thousands of planet she managed to identify during her years of service will certainly prove useful to humanity as we begin to set our sights on interstellar exploration and, God willing, colonization. And I imagine more than a few will bare the proud name of Kepler, in honor of her namesake and the telescope itself!

Sources: universetoday.com, Wired.com

Happy Birthday Copernicus!

heliocentricAs I learned not long ago, today is the 540th birthday of the late great man who definitely proved that the Earth revolved around the sun. And so I thought I’d take some time out of my busy (not so much today!) schedule to honor this great man and the massive contribution he made to astronomy, science and our understanding of the universe.

Given the importance of these contributions, I shall do my best to be pay homage to him while at the same time being as brief and succinct as I possibly can. Ready? Here goes…

Background:
copernicusBorn in Toruń (Thorn), Poland on 19 February 1473, Mikolaj Kopernik was the youngest of four children to be born into his wealthy merchant family. Given his background, Copernicus’ family was able to provide an extensive education for their son, which took him from Thorn to Włocławek to Krakow, where he attended university. In this time, he learned to speak many languages – including Polish, Greek, Italian, German and Latin (the language of academia in his day) – and also showed himself to be adept at mathematics and science.

During this time, he also received a great deal of exposure to astronomy, since it was during his years in Krakow (1491-1495) that the Krakow astronomical-mathematical school was experiencing its heyday. He was also exposed to the writings of Aristotle and Averroes, and became very self-guided in his learning, collecting numerous books on the subject of astronomy for his personal library.

Leaving Krakow without taking a degree, Copernicus moved to Warmia (northern Poland) where he turned to the study of canon law, perhaps in part because of his family’s strong Roman Catholic background. However, his love for the humanities and astronomy never left him, and he seemed to devote himself to these subjects even as he worked to obtain his doctorate in law. It was also during his time in Warmia that he met the famous astronomer Domenico Maria Novara da Ferrara and became his disciple and assistant.

geocentricUnder Ferrara, Copernicus traveled to Bologna, Italy and began critiquing the logical contradictions in the two most popular systems of astronomy – Aristotle’s theory of homocentric spheres, and Ptolemy’s mechanism of eccentrics and epicycles – that would eventually lead him to doubt both models. In the early 1500’s, while studying medicine at the University of Padua in Italy, he used the opportunity to pour over the libraries many ancient Greek and Latin texts to find historic information about ancient astronomical, cosmological and calendar systems.

In 1503, having finally earned his doctorate in canon law, Copernicus returned to Warmia where he would spend the remaining 40 years of his life. It was here that all of his observations about the movement of the planets, and the contradictions in the current astronomic models, would crystallize into his model for the heliocentric universe. However, due to fears that the publication of his theories would lead to official sanction from the church, he withheld his research until a year before he died.

It was only in 1542, after he had been seized with apoplexy and paralysis, that he sent his treaties, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) to Nuremberg to be published. It is said that on the day of his death, May 24th 1543 at the age of 70, he was presented with an advance copy of his book.

Impact and Legacy:
The immediate reaction of the church to the publication of Copernicus’ theories was quite limited. In time, Dominican scholars would seek to refute based on logical arguments and Aquinism, ranging from the positions of planets in the sky to very idea that Earth could be in motion. However, in attempting to disprove Copernicus’ theory, his detractors merely fostered a debate which would provide the impetus for reevaluating the field of physics and proving the heliocentric model correct.

galileo_telescopeAnd in time, with the help of such astronomers and mathematicians as Galileo, the debate would come to a head. Using the telescope, a technology he helped pioneer, he was able to demonstrate that the size of the planets during various times in the year did indeed conform to the heliocentric model, and that it was only through distortions caused by observing with the naked eye that made them seem larger (hence, closer to Earth) than they really were.

And although Galileo would eventually be forced to recant and placed under house arrest for his last few years on this Earth, the Copernican system became the defacto model of astronomy henceforth, and would help to launch the Scientific Revolution whereby several long-established theories would come to be challenged. These included the age of the Earth, the existence of other moons in our Solar System, Universal Gravitation, and the belief in the universe as a giant, rationalized clockwork mechanism.

Final Thoughts:
Naturally, there are those purists who would point out that he was not the first to propose a heliocentric planet system. In fact, the concept of a universe with the sun at the epicenter dates back Ancient Greece. However, Copernicus would be the first astronomer to propose a comprehensive model, which would later be refined by Galileo Galilee.

HeliocentricOther purists would point out that his system, when he developed it, had numerous observation and/or mathematical flaws, and that it was only after Galileo’s observations of the heavens with his telescope that his theories were made to work. But it is precisely because he was able to realize the truth of our corner of the universe, sans a reliable telescope, that makes this accomplishment so meaningful.

In Copernicus’ time, the rigors of the Aristotelian and Ptolemaic models were still seem by the majority of astronomers to be the correct one, regardless of church doctrine or religious bias. In purely mathematical terms, there was little reason to make an intuitive leap and suppose that the great minds on which Scholastic science was based had got it all wrong.

So when it comes right down to it, Copernicus was an intuitive genius the likes of which is seen only once in a lifetime. What’s more, his discoveries and the publication thereof helped bring humanity out of the Dark Ages – a time where learning and the hearts and minds of men were still under the iron grip of the Church – and helped usher in the modern age of science.

Copernicus_conversation_with_GodAnd if I could get a bit polemic for a second, I would like to say that it is unfortunate then that much of what Copernicus helped to overcome is once prevalent in society today. In recent years, long-established scientific truths like Evolution, Global Warming, and Homosexuality have being challenged by individuals who claim they are lies or merely “theories” that have yet to be proven. In all cases, it is clear what the agenda is, and once again faith and God are being used as a justification.

In fact, despite the monumental growth in learning and the explosion in information sharing that has come with the digital age, it seems that misinformation is being spread like never before. Whereas previous generations could always blame ignorance or lack of education, we few who are privileged enough to live in a modern, secular, democratic and industrialized nation have no such excuses.

And yet, it seems that some decidedly medieval trends are determined to persist. Despite living in a time when the vast and infinite nature of the universe is plain to see, there are still those who would insist on making it smaller just so they can sleep soundly in their beds. As if that’s not enough, they feel the need to villify that which they don’t understand, or openly threaten to kill those who preach it.

Sorry, like I said, polemic! And on this day of days, we can’t help but remember the lessons of history and how so often they are ignored. So if I might offer a suggestion to all people on this day, it would be to choose a subject they feel uninformed about and learn what they can about it. And do not trust just any source, consider the built-in biases and political slants of whatever it is you are reading. And if possible, go out and hug a scientist! Tell them you accept them, do not fear what they have to say, and will not be sending them death threats for doing what they do.

Happy 540th birthday Mikolaj Kopernik!

Update on Asteroid Apophis: No Apocalypse by 2036

apophisDiscovered back in 2004, the Apophis asteroid garnered lots of attention when initial calculations of its orbit indicated that there was a 2.7 percent chance that it would hit Earth when it did a flyby in 2029. After running additional calculations based on the asteroids data, scientists were able to rule out a 2029 impact, but there was still a remote possibility that it might hit Earth during another flyby in 2036. However, that estimate has also been revised.

Thanks to the European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory, a number of thermal infrared observations were captured of Apophis at different wavelengths. Taken together with optical measurements, Hershel was able to refine earlier estimates of the asteroid’s properties, which included its overall diameter. Initially, it was estimated to be 270 m on a side but now stands at a robust 325 m, an increased which translates into a 75% increase in its volume.

The thermal readings on the asteroid also provided a new estimate of the asteroid’s albedo, which is the a measure of its reflectivity. Knowing the thermal properties of an asteroid indicates how its orbit might be altered due to subtle heating by the Sun. Known as the Yarkovsky effect, the heating and cooling cycle of a small body as it rotates and as its distance from the Sun changes can instigate long-term changes to the asteroid’s orbit.

All of this taken together, has allowed NASA, the ESA and other space authorities to rule out the possibility of an impact by 2036 as well. Don Yeomans, manager of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory:

“We have effectively ruled out the possibility of an Earth impact by Apophis in 2036. The impact odds as they stand now are less than one in a million, which makes us comfortable saying we can effectively rule out an Earth impact in 2036. Our interest in asteroid Apophis will essentially be for its scientific interest for the foreseeable future.”

But the flyby on April 13, 2029 will be one for the record books, says NASA. On that date, Apophis will achieve the closest flyby of an asteroid of its size when it comes to within 31,300 kilometers (19,400 miles) of the Earth’s surface. And in the meantime, an smaller asteroid (40 meters in diameter) named 2012 DA14 will make an ever closer flyby as it passes Earth at a distance of 27,670 km (17,200 miles).

So people can rest, safe in the knowledge that no asteroids are likely to hit us anytime soon. But at the same time, apocalyptics can rest assured that there will be plenty of remote chances to exploit for the sake of their unusual brand of paranoia. As Yeomans said:

“With new telescopes coming online, the upgrade of existing telescopes and the continued refinement of our orbital determination process, there’s never a dull moment working on near-Earth objects.”