Friday, December 23, 2005
But, filled with the joy of Christmas and getting the January Southern Skywatch up (and a good feed of prawns and chocolate fudge) I've decided to give away a copy of the January/February edition of Australian Sky&Space to one lucky person. All you have to do is describe you best skywatching activity over the Chrissy-New Year break. Leave your entry as a comment to this post, and on January 9 I will choose the comment that moves me the most (or is acclaimed by other commenters). Yes, it is insanely subjective, but hey I could just put them all in a hat and draw one out, or choose the post whose word count is a prime number.
Don't put any address details in the comment (people are watching you know). I will contact the winner via the comments to this post, they we can work out posting via private email later on.
Disclaimer: I don't get any revenue from this blog, so you won't be subsidising my retirement fund via your comments. I am a contributing editor to Australian Sky&Space, but I, like all my fellow contributing editors, are volunteers, we don't make any money from our articles, and this is not an official Sky&Space promotion, it's just me giving away a copy out of good cheer rather than cynically trying to drum up trade.
So, Merry Christmas (or your local equivalent celebration), a Happy New Year, keep safe on the roads and may you have clear skies!
Christmas time sees the appearance of the street party. All the families on our street got together the chat, eat and imbibe their favorite drinks while the kids played cricket, or kicked footballs into trees (which I then had to climb to retrieve them). The afternoon twilight put on a nice show, while everyone enjoyed to warm conditions and fellowship. Eventually it got dark, and I dragged out the old portable refractor to show the kids Venus. Everyone, including the adults, were interested, especially as Venus is an amazing thin crescent of goodly size. Some people thought they were looking at the Moon. Mars was less successful due to cloud obscuring it, but a good session of planet gazing rounded off a fantastic street party.
Wednesday, December 21, 2005
Beagle 2 found?
It's a day for news today it is.
ABC Science News, New Scientist Space news and the Advertiser, for heavens sake, all report the possible discovery of the Beagle 2 lander on Mars.
The Beagle 2's possible collision site was picked up by Mars Global Surveyor, but there is no story on the MGS site at the moment. There are detailed images images at the Beagle 2 site.
Faint marking which seem to be a crash site, and things which might be the landing bags have been detected ib a crater close to the intended landing site, which was in a near-equatorial region called Isidis Planitia. Examination of the site with high resolution cameras on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will probably be required to determine if this really is the Beagle 2.
More on the Kitzmiller Case
You can download an audio file of the ABC story (realplayer and MP3's avilable at this link as well) and have a listen.
My favorite quote in the audio comes from the President of Christian Helpline who said Judges were not informed and needed to study the science of both sides. A sit happened there was an enormpus amout of science studied in the trial, it was quipped that everyone heard more about bacterial flagella than anyone would like to know. The key fact the emerged was that ID hadno science, just thinly described religious arguments slightly modified from old-style creationists.
Still, The Pandas Thumb is probably the best place to go for news and background information. Also there is the ACLU blog site. As well you can download the 139 page descison from the NSCE website.
I can't emphasise how big a win this is for science. Anti-evolution atempts to teach non-science in science classes will be set back for at least a decade.
A great win for Science
Monday, December 19, 2005
Here's a Mars comparison too (once again click to enlarge). You can see Mars rapidly decreasing in size. Pretty soon it will be a waste of time to image. Especially with Summer hotting up, turbulence will be getting worse. Hopefully I can get some late night images of Saturn in the New Year.
Thursday, December 15, 2005
Anglo Australian Observatory Photo stash
Wednesday, December 14, 2005
Aurora on Mars
Mars is just getting weirder. Mars Global Surveyor has detected hundreds of aurora on Mars. True, you can only see them in the ultraviolet, so you won't see the gorgeous colours you see on Earth, making a trek to Mars for the aurora enthusiast a bit of a waste. But the fact that they can be detected at all is amazing. On Earth aurora occur where magnetic fields funnel high speed Solar wind particles into the upper atmosphere. Mars has virtually no global magnetic field, but it does have some magnetic filed associated with patches of crust in the Martian Southern Hemisphere, where the aurora are seen. How Mars's weak magnetic field can cause funneling of charged particles is not clear.
Hat tip to MLR.
What is it about the name Buffy?
That Tom, Stuart, the Bad Astronomer and ABC Science News all blog her near simultaneously. Buffy, of vampire slayer fame, is the temporary name given to a 500-1000 km lump of ice out at the outer edge of the Kuiper belt, following a fine old (well one year old) tradition that began with Xena and Gabrielle. Like most objects in the Kuiper belt, Buffy (otherwise known as 2004 XR 190) is at a large angle (47°) to the orbital plane of the planets as they go around the Sun. Unlike most objects in the Kuiper belt, Buffy has an almost perfect circular orbit. This has caused a lot of puzzlement and head scratching, because current theories can't explain how Buffy's orbit is so circular. For full details and links to a 3D orbital simulation see the Canada-France Ecliptic Plane Survey webpage on Buffy.
Tuesday, December 13, 2005
Monday, December 12, 2005
Deck the halls
Our windows now twinkle with automated lights in our contribution to global warming, one or two neighbor's in our street will put up a string of flashing lights to get into the spirit of things. Next week we will wander down the streets that put in a serious effort. While they aren't as amazing as this house in the US (see the video here, it works best with the sound on) they will entrance the kids. Heck, we adults will be impressed too (and they don't make much addition to astronomical light pollution).
It's a bit strange celebrating Christmas in summer. All over Australia people are spraying fake snow over every available surface in temperatures that will cook eggs, and putting up pine trees and other European symbols of rebirth ready for sunreturn and when
In the Antipodes Christmas falls just after the Summer solstice, when we begin our descent into winter. So it doesn't make much sense to perform the rituals associated with the shortest day of the year and the passing of winter in southern climes. It's rather ironic considering that Saint Nick, who is our Christmas icon, hailed from the Mediterranean Roman city of Myra (now in Turkey), an area not renowned for either snow, pine trees or fur trimmed red robes (sadly, the locals have put up a statue of Santa Claus, in full red trimmings). There have been desultory attempts to shift Christmas to the Southern hemisphere winter solstice, but the conjunction of the long, hot Summer holidays and Christmas is ingrained in the Australian psyche (after a family game of beach cricket what else would one eat on a 40 deg C day but roast pork and steamed plum pudding) and the fact that Christmas day is firmly associated with the birth of
In the end, it is all about Calendrics (you thought I was going to say peace and good will, didn't you). The marking of the transition of winter to spring, summer to autumn, has a powerful hold on the European psyche as these events were literally matters of life and death. Astronomy was a serious business, and there wasn't much of a role for amateur astronomers in those days. Here in Australia, where these transitions aren't as marked (or even identifiable, in the North, the seasons come as "wet" or "dry") the solstice were less important, and the seasonal transitions were often marked by non-astronomical means such as flowering of certain plants. In most of Australia, unlike Europe, where the winter/spring transition arrives like a hammer blow (one day snow, the next day tulips, was my experience in Berlin), you will always find something flowering, and it is more a matter of what and how much that subtlely shades the seasons (the flowering of the wattles on the Yarra meant that the end of winter was in sight, the flowering of the Jackarandas meant summer was on the way).
So, as you celebrate your sunreturn festival of choice, reflect that Astronomy played an integral part in determining when these festivals were held, and that our modern amateur past time with our telescopes and web cams has its roots in people anxiously waiting for the sun to rise over special notched rocks.
Happy Anniversary Opportunity
Today (December 12) Opportunity has been on Mars for a full Martian year. As I write, Mars rides three fingerwidths from the waxing Moon, peeking out between the wind tossed clouds (remember how yesterday it was 38 deg C? Today it's 18 C and markedly chilly with telescope shaking winds that frustrate an anniversary observation of Mars). Opportunity and Spirit have outlasted their 90 day design specifications to take magnificent panoramas, film whirling dust devils and provide definitive evidence that liquid water once flowed (or seeped) on Mars. Opportunity is poised on the edge of Erebus crater, ready to examine a wealth of sedimentary layers and explore more of Mars's hydrological history. Unfortunately, Opportunities robotic arm is stuck. Unless it can be unstuck, the amount of information it can reveal will be limited.
Still, it can keep on taking great pictures and do other science experiments, and it has done so much already. Opportunity and Spirit, I salute you.
Sunday, December 11, 2005
Not so Great Venus and Mars
Some Moon Shots
Sandy Creek Redux
I love going to Sandy Creek. Well, as I've written before, I don't so much love the going to part. Smallest one going beserk, the rushing around to leave on time, the discovery down the road that some vital toy or game has been left behind. That I could live without. But being at Sandy Creek YHA is a delight. Clear skies, beautiful bush walking tracks just outside your front door of a variety of lengths that the kids can do at least a bit of walking on. The variety of animals that live around you is pretty astonishing too.
Last time we were at Sandy Creek the fields were lush and green, wattles and orchids were flowering, and Venus, Jupiter and Spica floated above the roof. This time the fields were burnt blond, broom and grevillias were flowering and Venus kept solo vigil above the youth hostel chimney.
They have been putting in new walks at Sandy Creek to replace the old eroded walks. We stumbled over part of the new tracks last time. This time we did the new Wren walk all the way around. Saw some large Euros (a kind of wallaby). In the afternoon we played bush cricket, got boomerangs stuck in the trees and futilely tried to fly kites. Pointed out Venus in the daylight and saw it as a crescent in binoculars.
Then we had a big birthday bash for the Bettdeckererschnappender weisles hemi-semi-demi cousin. Risoto and chocolate cake with sparklers, the lot.
After that I showed the kids and the adults crescent Venus, the Moon (Copernicus really vividly sharp, and mountains casting long shadows), Mars (it was pretty much a rudy disk in my 50 mm refractor) and Orions Nebula. With the Moon past first quarter the nebula wasn't spectacular, but the skies were darker than Largs North without the Moon, so it was pretty good. The adults were more entranced that the kids, because the kids were pretty well exhausted. But everyone enjoyed looking at the sky.
We finished off with coffee on the Veranda, watching the lowering Moon silvering the fields before us. What a way to spend the weekend.
Low Cost Astrophotography
You get a nice, fuzzy, out of focus image like this one I took of the Moon after half-an-hours sweating.
If you have a very stable telescope mount and no wind (which I didn't have when I took this) and don't shake much when holding your camera (I do). Then you can actually get quite nice pictures. You are pretty much limited to the Moon, Venus at it's brightest and Jupiter at opposition, but you can take reasonable images with fairly simple equipment (my telescope here was an elderly 50 mm refractor mounted on at camera tripod). If you have a spare camera tripod, mounting your camera on the tripod makes taking non-shaky images a whole lot easier. If you want to get fancy, you can build or buy adaptors to mount your camera directly on your telescope. The latter site has a nice tutorial on adapting digital cameras to telescopes.
Of course, you could always get out the pencil and paper and sketch what you see.
Friday, December 09, 2005
Well, I thought it was funny ...
Monday, December 05, 2005
A really enormous meteor
Things you see when you don't have a camera
Saturday, December 03, 2005
Desert Meteor Watch
Talk amongst yourselves
Friday, December 02, 2005
Sunspot 826 produces CME, aurora to follow?
Well, no sooner had I posted the Sunspot 826 post, but it erupted in a series of flares, (the image shows the first M class flare) ending in an M6 class flare (big). The strength of this CME is not yet known, but it is likely that at least some of this material will hit Earth in the next 24-48 hours, with the possibility of aurora.
People in Tasmania and Southern Victoria should be on the lookout for aurora after sunset on the 3rd and 4th of December. Aurora can strike anytime, but looking south after local midnight is often the best. At Victorian latitudes you will usually see a pink, shifting glow with faint rays, you won't see the magnificent sheets of aurora you can see in Tasmania.
More Binocular Venus
Venus was quite easy to see in binoculars. I braced my arms against the back of a chair so there was not too much wobble. In my badly-in-need-of-a-professional-clean-and-tune up 10x50's Venus was a tiny crescent. In my Dick Smith 10x25's I convinced myself that it was crescent shaped.
The clouds cam over shortly after sunset, so I couldn't determine exactly when the glare got too much. But it looks like if you want to see crescent Venus in binoculars, daytime is the go. As Venus will increase form 35 to 50 arc seconds during December, the chances of binocular Venus is quite good.
Southern Skywatch up
SETI rebuffs Intelligent Design
Sunspot 826 Ahoy!
The Sun had gone quiet on us after the excitement of sunspot 822, but in the past two days sunspot 826 has expanded in size from the inconspicuos to around the size of Saturn. This one will be interesting to watch with safe solar projection techniques as it rotates across the Sun's face. 826 has also fired off a C and M class flare, so there is a small chance we might get aurora from this one.
Oh, and happy 10th aniversay SOHO (not bad for a probe on a two year mission). The SOHO pick of the week is a CME and Mercury.
Thursday, December 01, 2005
The Lost Oceans of Mars
This weeks issue of the journal Nature is packed with news of interest to the Astronomical community. Mars rates high on the list. Firstly, the MARIS radar array, which is seeking buried water, appears to have found ice in a mid-latitude crater. This could be remanants of water that once flowed through Valles Marineris. MARIS will start seeking water in earnest in the coming weeks.
Image Credit ESA
Also, the OMEGA spectrometer has found evidence of clays in the old uplands of Mars. While the Mars rovers and orbital reconnaissance have found abundant evidence of past water on Mars, it appears to have been acidic, which is not conductive to forming clays. The finding of clays in the oldest terrains suggest that at early periods, between 4.0-3.5 Billion years ago, Mars was warm and wet and somewhat Earth-like, then as Mars evolved the water became salty and acidic before disappearing.
In other news Hayabusa has almost certainly got asteroidal samples, but it's engines seem to be playing up, casting doubt on a return to Earth. There is also the first in-depth reports of the Titan mission, but these are all subscriber only (so no links). I'll try and summarise later on, but particularly interesting is that the aerosols in Titan's atmosphere are complex, nitrogen containing organic compounds.