July 17, 2019

April 2008: News & Notes

Wacky New England Weather: Its official; the National Weather Service in Caribou, Maine has recorded the most snow ever in the 2007-2008 winter season.

Will we break the mythical 200+ inches? April and May remain… we may still be snowshoeing here at the future site of the Twin Dogs Observatory on Saint Froid Lake in early May!

Naked Eye Burster: On March 19th, one of the largest Gamma Ray bursts ever recorded was observed in the constellation Bootes. (see intro pic). Dubbed GRB080319B, the flare reached almost magnitude +5 for approximately 10 seconds. +6 is generally accepted as the naked eye limit under optimal skies. At a red shift of 0.94, the burst has been estimated to be a whopping 7.5 billion light years distant! This raises two questions in my mind: 1- Did any amateurs happen to catch it during routine astrophotography? 2- Have any surreptitious bursts been recorded during the century and a half of astrophotography? I sense yet another online research project here…

Google Crater: Another possible first occurred recently; a meteorite crater was discovered online. Using the freeware applet Google Earth, Dr. Arthur Hickman discovered an unknown crater in the Australian outback. Located 35 kilometers north of the small mining town of Newman in the Western Territory, the crater is only the 30th discovered in Australia and the 173rd verified in the world. Something else for would be meteoriticists (try saying that three times quickly!) to amuse themselves online with? hey, its more productive than free cell… also check out this quick cell-phone pan courtesy of Astroguyz of a more well known Arizona Crater.

Spring Aurorae: Spring time in the Northern Hemisphere is also aurora time. For reasons still not completely understood by scientists, the Northern Lights nearly always put on a prime display for mid to high latitudes in the March-April time frame. Of course, areas north of the 60 have nearly perpetual daylight through the summer months, making aurorae sighting impossible. That is, unless you’re John Wayne in “North to Alaska.”  Still, its worth poking your head out every clear night to see if the skies are ablaze. Believe me, a truly awesome auroral display can be the viewing event of a lifetime! And to think, they’re frequent enough around areas like Fairbanks, Alaska, that deep sky observers consider them a nuisance! Its also worth keeping an eye online for the condition of the auroral oval.

Pleiades Occultation: Mark your calendars; on the evening of April 8th, the three day old Moon will occult the Pleiades star cluster. The action begins about 09:30 EDT and lasts about two hours. This is always a pretty sight through binocs or a low power eyepiece: you can even get a sense of the Moon’s motion through its orbit.

Lyrid Meteors: One of the best meteor showers of the spring is active for the month of April. The Lyrid meteors peak on April 22nd, but a waning gibbous moon will drown out all but the brightest fireballs. For best results, attempt viewing in the early morning hours and try to block the moon behind a structure such as a hill or a house peak.

Space Radiation Forecasting: As the manned space program returns to the Moon and onward to Mars, a need for detecting blasts of lethal radiation primarily from the sun will be vital. Now, a method of Real time Space Radiation Forecasting is now in place.  Based on the observations of the Comprehensive Suprathermal and Energetic Particle Analyzer (COSTEP) instrument aboard the ESA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), complex forecast predictions pioneered by Dr. Arik Posner enable scientists to make predictions within the hour. Tested on a “dry run” during the last Shuttle mission, this data would allow astronauts on a long range voyage to seek protection in a shielded “storm cellar” on aboard the ship. Score another one for the ESA and its outstanding SOHO satellite, which has probably returned more science than any mission we can recall in recent memory!

Jules Verne in Space: The European Space Agencies’ Jules Verne Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) has been making a series of close passes with the International Space Station, making for some interesting naked eye satellite passes as of late. I caught both about a week ago from Northern Maine; the ISS was as bright as Sirius, the ATV fainter and about a minute behind.  On April 3rd, the ATV preformed the successful automated docking with the ISS. This has made for interesting drama on NASA TV. The goal is to use the ATV to supplement the Shuttle as a supply delivery vehicle, then take over the role when the Shuttle fleet is retired in 2010.

One of the SciFi Greats: Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke passed away March 17th at the age of 90. One of the last true greats of the Golden Age of science fiction, he was most well known for the blockbuster film 2001: a Space Odyssey and his early proposal for geosynchronous satellites before the space age. Some of our favorite books include Rendezvous with Rama and Childhood’s End. Why aren’t these movies yet?

Earth Doomed?: Studies of a binary star system in Sagittarius has not yielded particularly good news; the orientation of the system appears to be aimed with the poles directly at us. Why is that bad? one of the stars is known to be a Wolf-Rayet type star, an unstable variety thought to be a supernova progenitor. Discovered eight years ago by astronomers at the University of Sydney, the star lies about 8,000 light years distant. A nearby gamma ray burst in our galaxy, such as the one in the intro pic, would spell a very bad day for Earth. Bathing us in in lethal radiation, it could effectively sterilize the planet. As we die, we could at least take comfort in the pretty blue Cerenkov radiation light show emanating from Sagittarius. The fact that its based in an area south of the equator would suggest that regions north of latitude 60 north would afford the most protection from the bulk of the planet. I may be visiting Fairbanks soon. Of course, like most cosmic catastrophes, this may happen tomorrow or ten thousand years from now.

Phoenix Probe: Meanwhile in the inner solar system, NASA’s Mars Phoenix lander is swiftly approaching the Red Planet. Touchdown is scheduled for May 25th, 2008. This will mark a return of powered landers as it targets the northern martian plains in the search for water. Let’s hope it doesn’t follow the fate of the Mars Polar Lander and the Beagle mission.

New Moon Update: The quest to sight the slender new or old moon continues here at Saint Froid Lake; unfortunately, it was cloudy here all weekend. I did manage to sight the Moon Friday, April 4th, about 41 hours prior to new. Not a record, I know! All eyes are now on May, and an attempt at the record.

An Earth Twin?: A recent study suggests that our nearest stellar neighbor, Alpha Centauri (about 4 light years distant) could harbor Earth-like terrestrial planets. Spectra of Alpha Centauri B, one of three stars in the trinary system, indicate a higher metallicity than our own Sun. Prime rocky planet country. Any theoretical worlds should be visible with the next generation of space based telescopes, such as the James-Web or Terrestrial Planet Finder.

Enceladus Update: Saturn’s moon, Enceladus has joined the growing list of possible abodes of life in the solar system. The Cassini spacecraft has spotted plumes of cryo-volcanism on the icy moon, and on a recent 31-mile plunge past the moon on March 12th of this year, Cassini discovered may comet-like facets to the plumes’ composition. Enceladus, like Jupiter’s moon, Europa, is now suspected of harboring a vast, underground ocean. Anyone planning a lander in the future?

Peruvian mystery crater: Around noon, September 15th, 2007, a bright fire ball streaked across the Andean sky. The resulting meteorite struck an area north of Puno, in the Lake Titicaca area. Near the tiny town of Carancas, the resulting crater was about 49 feet in diameter. After an analysis of the site, a key feature of the impact struck (no pun intended!) researchers as odd; the meteorite was of a class known as “stony,” a loose aggregate that generally gets ripped apart in the Earth’s atmosphere. The meteorite was also moving much faster than normal, about 15,000 mph. This may have had an effect on the resulting crater pictured above.

Full Moon: This month’s full moon is known as the Full Pink Moon and occurs on 20th April at 06:25AM EDT. Other names include the Full Sprouting Grass, Egg, or Fish Moon. The distictive names come to us from the Algoquin tribes of New England.

Quote of the Month: “Any suffiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”                                                    -Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of the Future, 1961 (also known as Clarke’s third law.)

New Beer: Speaking of full moons, Blue Moon Brewing company has just released Rising Moon Spring Ale. Part of its Seasonal Collection, Rising Moon is an Amber Wheat Ale flavored with Kiefer lime leaves & lime peel. Thus far, I’ve only sighted it at Walmart… hey, maybe they’re not so corporately evil after all! But don’t wait until the next blue moon; enjoy a Rising Moon Ale this next lunation. And don’t worry about that glow in Sagittarius….


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