March 31, 2020

October 2008: News & Notes.

(Newsflash- NASA announced recently that STS-125, the final servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, will be delayed indefinitely due to a failure of the telescopes’ main control unit. Engineers are looking at options to restart a backup unit. That also scrubs Astroguyz’s mission to cover the launch live! click here for more info!)

First Image of an Exo-Planet: Astronomers utilizing the Gemini North telescope have produced what may be the first image ever of an exo-planet. The three person team from the University of Toronto used the adaptive optics of the enormous telescope to image the object in the glare of 1RXS J160929.1-210524, about 500 light years distant. The planet lies at about 330 AU’s from its parent star, or more than ten times the distance of Neptune. It is thought to have a mass eight times that of Jupiter. The star itself is much like our Sun, and was targeted because of its relatively young age. “We targeted young stars so that any planetary mass object they hosted would not have had time to cool, and thus would still be relatively bright,” stated Team member Marten van Kerkwijk. Due to its extremely slow orbit, follow-up observations will be necessary to ascertain that the object is gravitationally bound to the star. Generally, common proper motion, coupled with orbital velocity, is a good indicator to cinch this.

New Dwarf Planet Unveiled: In a recent announcement, the International Astronomical Union has named the fifth dwarf planet to date; Haumea joins the swelling ranks of the tiny. This bizarre world is known to have two moons, and is nearly twice as long as it is wide along its oblong axis! Some intrigue has surrounded its discovery; Michael Brown of Caltech was preparing to announce the discovery to the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge of an object they had been monitoring when a Spanish team used previous observations to pre-empt them. What later became obvious was that the team had accessed Brown’s data to do so. The Spanish team had proposed a name of Ataecina, a chthonic goddess associated with the underworld. This would have broken with convention, as only objects in a Pluto-like orbit (i.e. in resonance with Neptune) generally receive underworld related names. Haumea, the Hawaiian fertility goddess, was a more appealing choice. Haumea is flanked by two moons, Hi’iaka, and Namaka.


The Quiet Sun: The sun has been eerily quiet as of late; recently, NASA has revealed that the solar wind has reached a 50 year minimum, the lowest since the space program began. Emergence of a tiny sunspot group this past week has given hope that a new solar cycle may be finally underway. In a press conference on September 23rd, solar physicists announced the lull, monitored by the Ulysses spacecraft, which was launched in 1990 to monitor solar activity. How unusual this lull is isn’t immediately clear; we’ve only been monitoring the Sun in earnest for the last half a century. One consequence of this is that the Voyager spacecraft may escape the shrinking heliosphere and exit the solar system much earlier than intended. An increase in extra-solar cosmic rays is also anticipated, which will pose a threat to long term space travel.


Mercury Revealed: Scientists are still pouring over the data sent back for Messengers’ flyby of the innermost world earlier this year. One of the big surprises has been an active magnetic field surrounding the tiny world, the only terrestrial world to possess one of any strength other than Earth. Could geologic processes still be afoot? Messenger was the first spacecraft to visit Mercury since the Mariner flybys in 1975, and is due for orbital insertion in 2011.


The Final Shuttle Flights: NASA has announced that only eight shuttle flights remain; all but one is in support of the ISS. The next flight, of course, supports the Hubble Space Telescope this month. There are also two “contingency” flights in the budget. The last shuttle flight is scheduled for May 31st, 2010. There are also rumors of an extension of the shuttle until 2013.

A New Stellar Heavy Weight?: Move over, Eta Carninae; astronomers may have found a contender for the title of the most massive star known. The Peony nebula star deep in the heart of our galaxy, has a mass of 150-200 suns! Such massive heavy weights push the envelope of probability in stellar physics; the star is so massive that it can barely hold itself together. At a luminosity of 3.2 million suns, it may be close in size to Eta Carinae in the Large Magellanic Cloud at 4.7 million suns. These estimates have an amount of uncertainty because of the dense stellar neighborhoods they inhabit. The Peony star is a prime candidate for a supernova and was spied through the intervening dust by the Spitzer Space telescope.

Salts of Mars: The Phoenix Lander continues to return first rate science from the surface of Mars. Recently, scientists announced the discovery of perchlorate salts in a soil sample of the Martian surface, which could have interesting consequences for life on the Red Planet. Perchlorate is an ion composed of a chlorine atom with four oxygen atoms attached. On Earth, some micro-organisms feed on perchlorates, which are an oxidant. This discovery comes amid the unprecedented step by NASA scientists to involve the public with science “as it happens…”

Looking Back: NASA’s Deep Impact space craft recently imaged its home world in action as it whizzed about the inner solar system… Deep Impact, which grabbed its claim to fame three years ago after sending a high speed impactor into comet Temple 1, is now serving to chase Comet Hartley 2 in 2010, and as a mission known as EPOXI, which hopes to characterize long range views of earthlike exoplanets. On May 29th of this year, Deep Impact looked back at the Earth moon system, producing a stunning video. Any intelligent life down there?

A Tidally Locked Star: Exoplanet research continues to be the sexiest field of modern astronomy. Recently the ESA’s COROT spacecraft (COnvection, ROtation, & planetary Transits) discovered Jupiter mass planet transiting the face of a sun like star in a tight, 9.2 day orbit. Such “hot Jupiters” are no longer considered all that bizarre; what is strange is that the stars’ rotation is in sync with the planet’s orbit! This is the first known case of a star that is tidally locked, that is, perpetually keeping one face towards the orbiting planet. Such a small mass was thought to have a negligible effect on a much larger body. Did this gas giant perform the braking over billions of years on its own? Or did the synchronization occur as the proto-planetary nebula cooled and condensed, forming the star and planet simultaneously? Obviously, the system warrants further scrutiny. COROT is the first in a series of exoplanet hunting satellites, not the least of which will be NASA’s Terrestrial Planet Finder series, which has been shelved indefinitely but could be launched as early as 2014. COROT has already analyzed over 50,000 stars in just under 2 years in orbit. Is an “exoplanet gap” emerging?

Astro Blooper of the Month: This month’s lemon goes to the movie “Highlander: the source”…Ok, I know it’s more of the D&D fantasy genre… But the whole “planetary alignment” thing bugged me throughout. And the fact that they used an “astronomer” in an attempt to legitimize the whole thing! Planetary alignments do not “hover” over the rotating Earth; nor do they look like Journey album covers, as depicted in the movie… this misconception has been used as a plot device in one too many movies! Instead of viewing this movie, why not view some up and coming planetary conjunctions?

Full Moon: This months Full Moon is one of our favorite here at Astroguyz… the Hunter’s Moon. To the Algonquin tribes, this Full moon provided some much needed extra illumination to bring in the deer meat for the long winter ahead. This month, the Full Moon occurs on October 14th at 04:04 PM EDT.


Quote of the Month: “If you haven’t broken something down so that your grandmother could understand it, you haven’t explained it very well.”

-James Van Allen, U.S. Physicist.


  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by David Dickinson, Peter Newbury. Peter Newbury said: @AstroWord In a sentence: "Using adaptive optics, telescope mirrors ripple and deform to untwinkle starlight." #AWOD [...]

  2. [...] group in late Dec 2004 from a Palomar Observatory, Haumea (say HOW-meh) perceived a grave name on September 17, 2008 along with a dwarf universe designation. Remember, astronomers detected Haumea — like Xena [...]

  3. [...] group in late Dec 2004 from a Palomar Observatory, Haumea (say HOW-meh) perceived a grave name on September 17, 2008 along with a dwarf universe designation. Remember, astronomers detected Haumea — like Xena [...]

  4. [...] group in late Dec 2004 from a Palomar Observatory, Haumea (say HOW-meh) perceived a grave name on September 17, 2008 along with a dwarf universe designation. Remember, astronomers detected Haumea — like Xena [...]

  5. [...] group in late Dec 2004 from a Palomar Observatory, Haumea (say HOW-meh) perceived a grave name on September 17, 2008 along with a dwarf universe designation. Remember, astronomers detected Haumea — like Xena [...]

  6. [...] late December 2004 from the Palomar Observatory, Haumea (say HOW-meh) received its formal name on September 17, 2008 along with its dwarf planet designation. Remember, astronomers discovered Haumea — like Xena [...]

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