January 20, 2020

December 2008: News & Notes.

Mysterious Missing Gamma Rays: Gamma rays have been “hot” (pun intended) in the news as of late. Now, decades after their initial discovery, scientists are asking themselves; where are they? Specifically, long term bursts, those lasting seconds or more seem to be missing from the universes’ earliest epochs.

Gamma ray bursts were first discovered during the Cold War, as satellites began monitoring the gamma ray portion of the spectrum in search of nuclear detonations. As resolution improved to pinpoint these mysterious bursts, it became apparent that the source wasn’t oriented with the plane of our galaxy, and thus had to be far away and extremely powerful. The source of these long bursts is now believed to young, hyper sized stars, undergoing an explosive collapsar stage. Such stars should be common in the early universe, which is now placed at a tender age of about 13.8 billion years. The problem is, observations seem to peg out at about a red shift of 6.7, represented by the most distant burst observed earlier this year by the Swift satellite, at an age of about 12.8 billion years ago. Where are the gamma-ray bursts greater than red shift 7? One possible theory is that their light is so distant that it’s actually shifted up the spectrum… infra-red bursts, anyone?

Are Phoenix’s Days numbered?: NASA’s Phoenix lander has generated some outstanding science since its landing in the Martian polar region. Now, with the onset of northern hemisphere winter, the Landers solar powered batteries are in jeopardy. Systems are now being drawn down to critical use only in a bid to preserve the lander and extend its mission as long as possible. Engineers knew this day would come, but it’s sad to see it none the less. Phoenix is now basically acting as a remote weather station, monitoring the beginnings of Martian winter. Plans are built in to place the lander in a semi-permanent safe mode for the remote possibility of hailing it in Martian spring… (Remember, a year on Mars is twice as long as Earth!) Among recent discoveries by the Phoenix lander are possible water ices and perchlorates, or salt, in the Martian soil.

Lunar Perseids: The Earth isn’t the only body getting pummeled by the Perseid meteor shower in August. Amateur astronomers have been aiming low-light video cameras at the unlit portion of the Moon on or around the date of expected meteor show peaks and have recorded flashes of the Moon. This has long been suspected but until the last decade has never been recorded. To be successful, one needs a dark portion of the Moon to aim a camera at, a meteor shower, and patience. Also keep in mind that these impacts may only present themselves on slow speed playback.

A reducing atmosphere discovered…on Earth?: Earth is losing oxygen. Not the channel, but the elemental gas. Analysis of data from the Cluster satellites, an Earth monitoring quartet, has conclusively shown oxygen ions are stripped from the exosphere and then accelerated from the poles by the solar winds. The amount is negligible compared to the large amount sequestered away in the Earth and the oxygen cycle, however, so don’t go hoarding the flammable stuff!

Massive Galactic Cluster Discovered: One of the largest structures of any sort has been recently indentified. ESA astronomers, using the XMM-Newton probe and backing up observations with the newly activated Large Binocular Telescope in Arizona, have discovered a massive galaxy cluster, the largest yet identified. Packing 1,000 times the mass of our own trite Milky Way, this cluster is about 7.7 billion light years distant. (Cosmology seems to be the theme this month!) Sporting the name 2XMM J083026+524133, studies of this massive group are expected to yield data on that ever mysterious and insidious force, Dark energy.

A minor planet with a Loooong Orbit: Astronomers have discovered a minor planet with a bizarre orbit; 2006 SQ372 is currently near perihelion inside the orbit of Neptune but will soon begin its long swing out on its 22,500 year orbit. Just think, on its last interior passage, our ancestors were still recovering from the latest Ice Age! Thought to be about 30-60 miles in diameter, the object was another inadvertent find by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey as it scanned the heavens for supernovae. The object is more than likely a “failed comet” that got kicked into an extreme orbit by a pass with Neptune. At aphelion, 2006 SQ372 is more than 1600 AU distant.

Fun Lunar Test: If your ever stranded on the Moon, it might be helpful (and surprising!) to know what to have in your emergency survival pack. The Lunar Survival Test sets the scenario that you’ve crash landed on the Moon, and must make it 200 miles over open terrain back to base. The site also has such classics as “would you survive a zombie apocalypse,” and other cool office time wasters.

A Cool Winter brew: We’ve just rounded out our seasonal tours of the Blue Moon collection with one of our favorite yet; Full Moon winter ale. This one would’ve made the cut for an Eclipsed Moon Ale, had the company had the vision to go there. A darker, stout brew, this is perfect for those long, cloudy winter nights. We picked ours up at Sweetbay… enjoy!

December Full Moon: This Decembers’ Full Moon is known as the Full Cold Moon, for obvious reasons. It occurs on December 12th, 2008 at 11:38 AM EST. This is the closest Full Moon to the Winter Solstice, and hence will be above the horizon all night from spots north of the 60!

Astro-Blooper of the Month: Sure, Expelled was rife with inaccuracies… but I thought it was especially amusing that Ben Stein felt the need to take a swipe at astronomy as well. His whole bit “aliens did it” to attempt to blow off an exogenesis origin of life falls flat. True, it may never be proven either way, unless a guided intelligence (i.e. advanced civilization shows up, saying “we did it!”) But more evidence exists that even unguided panspermia is at least possible, and more probable than intelligent design. Occam’s razor, anyone?

This month in Astro-History: On December 14th, 1962, Mariner 2 completed the first flyby of the Planet Venus. Mariner 2 was also the first successful interplanetary spacecraft, and served as a test-bed for future technologies and the Deep Space Network of radio telescopes that are used to this day. Its initial measurements would lead scientists to conclude that Venus was blindingly hot, not a Jurassic park like jungle world or a lounge-singer’s-dream seltzer shrouded planet, as previously postulated.

Quote of the Month: “The Universe is indeed out to kill us.”

-Dr Pamela Gay, Astronomer and host of Astronomy Cast.

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