January 17, 2020

May 2009 News & Notes.

And the Winner is: It’s official; after much debating and furious blog commenting, the newly discovered moon of the Plutoid Orcus (remember, the anti-Pluto?) is… drum roll… Vanth! Loyal followers of this space and Astronomy Picture of the Day will remember a few weeks ago, when astronomer Mike Brown put out a call to name the tiny object and give a good reason why.

What followed was a cyber-avalanche of insights, puns, Dungeons and Dragons references, and discourses on the pedigree of Etruscan mythology. We’re glad that we here at Astroguyz contributed in a tiny way by weighing in with a Vanth vote (Lilith and Nox were our other picks)… we’d like to think we tipped the scales in some parallel universe. In Etruscan mythos, Vanth is a goddess of death and a denizen of the underworld. This lively banter also introduced us to such vocabulary builders as “psycho-pomp…” The Moon Vanth is about 250 km in diameter and orbits Orcus every 10 days. “Porcus” and “Mindy” were clever follow-ups…at least Colbert didn’t nab an astronomical body!

Water Sighted on Mars?: Researchers recently glimpsed an exciting find clinging on the legs of the Phoenix Lander…Possible condensation! Water that is… Martian Gold… OK, on the serious side…scientists have been stymied at attempts to scrape ice samples for testing into Phoenixes’ ovens. The ice had been initially exposed by the landing exhaust directly underneath the lander, but has proved very difficult to cut into. Now, new research and images have shown that condensation has formed and can even be occasionally seen running down the landing struts! How is that possible you say, in the cold thin Martian air? Silt-like material sprayed up from the landing exhaust appears to have collected on the struts, along with chlorine rich salts known as perchlorates. Then, through the process of deliquesce, the salts collected and concentrated the minuscule amounts of water vapor in the air. These effects jibe well with laboratory simulations. And viola, morning dew on Mars!

Can Moon dust be faked?: Moon landing hoaxers and conspiracy theorists can at least be smug in the knowledge of the following; NASA has finally learned how to fake real Moon dust! That’s, right, after nearly 40 years since the first original Moon landing, scientists are learning how to simulate the evilly abrasive stuff on Earth. Scientists have been busy breaking down igneous anorthosite rock from the Stillwater Mine in Nye, Montana, to test everything from equipment to suits. Remember, when Apollo went to the Moon, we generally stayed not more than 72 hours max. This time, NASA plans to stay for much longer durations. How equipment will stand up in the lunar environment is crucial knowledge. Returning astronauts described the dust that coated their excursion suits as having a “gunpowder” smell, and resembling coal dust. And like coal dust, moon dust can be hazardous to the lungs! The ancient rock of the Stillwater Mine is 2.7 million years old and closely resembles lunar sample returns. Scientists also hope to “live off the land,” eventually using lunar regolith to do everything from create concrete to build lunar structures to extract hydrogen and oxygen for air, water, and fuel. And let’s not forget that Helium-3 that is theorized to exist up there…

The Deepening Solar Minimum: The Sun has been eerily quiet these past couple of years and many folks have wondered why. Solar Cycle #24 has been off to a sputtering start, and scientists haven’t seen such a deep, spotless minimum since 1913, which had 311 spotless days. 2008 had 266, and we are already on track for a possible record breaking year, with 100 so far (as of April 24th). This also coincides with other record solar lows in the past year in solar wind pressure, irradiance, and radio activity. And then there is the global warming/dimming controversy; could a “quiet Sun” be masking or mimicking effects? Are we in for a whopper of a peak around 2012-3 or a fizzle? The Sun is definitely worth checking out if you’re optically equipped to do so. The Sun typically goes through an 11-year cycle of highs and lows first identified in the 1800′s by astronomer Heinrich Schwabe. Controversy has always swirled around the solar cycle and its impact on climate, such as the Great Maunder Minimum of the 17th century, when no sunspots were seen and bizarre weather phenomena (such as the Thames freezing solid!) occurred. Whatever the cause, scientists who study the Sun are excited to have such a deep minimum to study, with an all new arsenal of toys and gadgets, up close!

(Supernova animation)

A Classic Supernova revisited: In 1572, Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe witnessed a Type 1A supernova in the constellation Cassiopeia. Along with Kepler’s supernova in 1604, these were the last witnessed in our galaxy; none have occurred up close and personal since the invention of the telescope. Now, astronomers utilizing 8.2 meter Subaru telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii have actually detected the light echo of the same far off catastrophic explosion! The 436 year old echo is bouncing off of interstellar dust behind and to the sides of the supernova remnant. Astronomers hope to obtain a spectrum from the echo for study. A Type 1A supernova occurs when a white dwarf feeds off a bloated red giant companion and explodes in the process. Such Supernovae react in a highly predictable fashion and are used as standard candles over extra-galactic distances. Here’s hoping for a galactic supernova in our lifetimes, just not too close!

India at the Moon: NASA has hitch-hiked an instrument to lunar orbit. Mini-SAR, a small, Synthetic Aperture Radar aboard India’s Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter, is peering into polar craters looking for the Holy Grail of lunar exploration; not cheese, but ice. Mini-SAR measures the base reflectivity of these crater floors, some of which lie permanently in shadow. Water has long been thought to reside at the lunar poles, delivered over the eons by cometary impacts. And of course, such a find would be a boon to manned space exploration!

In search of our stellar relatives: What ever happened to the distant relatives of our Sun? Where is that far off proto- nebula that gave birth to our humble solar system? And why don’t they ever call, like they promised? Following the standard theory of stellar evolution, our Sun began life about 4.5 billion years ago. Now, scientists from the University of Amsterdam estimate that some of our nest mates may still be surprisingly close. It has always been assumed that other stars from our original proto-cluster have been dispersed throughout the galaxy in our 27 odd turns we’ve all made around the galactic disk.  The adolescent Sun had its solar nebula enriched by at least one nearby supernova, and estimates gathered by measuring the dynamic activity in the Kuiper belt give the original solar nebula a constraining mass of 500 to 3,000 solar masses and a diameter of about 20 light years. Analysis by Professor Simon F. Portegies Zwart suggests a few percent (10 to 50) of our fellow solar alumni may still be traveling parallel to us about the galactic disk not more than 300 light years distant. Proper motion, coupled with chemical composition may clinch this.

Solar Portals?: The Earth’s solar environment is turning out to be a very dynamic place. It was once thought that the flow of energized particles was a stable, unimpeded flow. Now evidence from NASA’s five THEMIS spacecraft and ESA’s four Cluster observatories suggest hard evidence for a reversing cylindrical process that follows an eight minute cycle. Dubbed flux transfer events, these FTE’s are thought to be of two varieties, active and passive. How these monsters generate magnetic shear is yet to be seen.

AstroBlooper of the Month: This month’s astro-blooper comes from the movie (which we liked!) White Squall. There’s a point towards the denouement of this quaint bildungsroman were the boys are set adrift in the nighttime Caribbean after a killer storm. One points up to a moving light and states “there goes (Alan) Shepherd.” They had been listening to a broadcast of his launch previous to the storm. I’m not sure why the director decided to include this, as it seemed a little disjointed from the plot. However, it’s also wrong. Alan Shepherd’s Mercury flight (yes, we know he went up with Apollo, as well…) was sub-orbital and occurred during the broad daylight, and hence was not visible during the night time!

This Month in AstroHistory: On May 5th, 1961, Alan Shepherd became the 1st American in space. As noted above, his 15 minute flight aboard Freedom 7 was strictly suborbital. Shepherd reached a maximum height of 187 km on his short ballistic trajectory before splashdown and recovery in the Atlantic. Although not the first man in space, he was the first man to travel into space and be recovered safely…Gagarin had to bail out and parachute to Earth!

Launches for May: STS-125, the last servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, is the big ticket item of the month. The orbiter is Atlantis, and the target launch window is May 11th, 2:01 P.M. EDT. Watch this space (and Astroguyz on Twitter!) for the latest, as we plan to cover this live! Other launches include;

-A Delta 2 satellite shot out of Vandenberg, California on May 5th, window is 04:24-:52pm, EDT;

-A Minotaur out of Wallops Island (apparently, Cinco de Mayo is a busy day for space launches!) opportunity window 8-11pm EDT;

And the following launches are out of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan;

-Two Soyuz resupply shots to the International Space Station on May 7th at 2:37 pm EDT, and May 27th at 6:34 am EDT.

Of note but to be determined are the launches of the Herschel and Planck observatories by the European Space Agency from Kourou, French Guiana. Herschel is an Infra-red observatory, while Planck is targeting the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation.

Quote of the Month: “Mathematics is like childhood diseases. The younger you get it, the better.”

-          Arnold Sommerfeld, German Physicist.

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