March 21, 2019

September 2009:News & Notes.

Is Betelgeuse shrinking? Everyone’s favorite candidate for a nearby supernova has been exhibiting some alarming behavior as of late. The red giant star Betelgeuse, located in the shoulder of Orion, has decreased in size by 15 percent since 1993, equating to a loss of 1% of diameter per year. The finding comes from monitoring conducted by researchers at the University of Berkeley using the Infrared Spatial Interferometer atop Mount Wilson. This shrinkage is all the more stupefying when one considers that recent research places Betelgeuse at a distance of 640 light years, making this bloated star over 5 astronomical units in diameter! AAVSO volunteers that have been monitoring the star have noted that the shrinkage has not been accompanied by a magnitude drop. Betelgeuse stands as one of the few stars large enough to infer a tiny angular diameter in large telescopes. Whether this shrinkage is a result of a periodic pulsation or signifies something more ominous isn’t entirely clear. A supernova from this star could occur tonight (with accompanying trends on Twitter) or 10,000 years from now…we comfortably sit outside of the 25 light year “death zone,” so with any luck, we will be able to simply sit back and enjoy the light show, while astronomers get the chance to examine a supernova up close!



TC3 2008 Recovered: Remember the surreptitious asteroid that smacked the Sudanese desert last year less than 24 hours after discovery? Originally assumed to have simply disintegrated in an explosion 23 miles above the desert floor, fragments have since been recovered strewn over an 18 square mile area. The asteroid formerly known as TC3 2008 now sports the name “Almahata Sitta” (Meaning Station Six in Arabic, the rail depot near were residents spotted the fireball) and stands as the only asteroid studied before and after impact. A team led by Peter Jenniskens of the SETI Institute and Mauwia Shaddad of the University of Khartoum have thus far recovered 11 pounds of what was estimated to be a 80 ton behemoth. The verdict? Almahata was of a class of meteorites known as urelites; rare porous rocks dark in color and rich in cooked carbon. Spectroscopic analysis before impact suggest that the asteroid was a F-class space rock, which may give us a clue to their composition and origin.



Wondering Black Hole spotted? In 2006, Hubble spotted a bizarre object in the constellation Bootes; a source that abruptly flared up 120 times in brightness over a period of 100 days and then promptly faded into obscurity. Dubbed SCP 06F6, this variable was unique in that it couldn’t be pin-pointed to a source, inter or extra galactic. Nothing exists at the reference location down to magnitude +26! Now, scientists at the University of Warwick may have found a defining signature; a shifted carbon absorption spectrum. This shift would place the event at a whooping distance of 1.8 billion light years, at a red shift of 0.14. A possible culprit? A wondering, extra-galactic black hole, perhaps gobbling a dwarf carbon star.



Google…Mars! Looking to take a voyeuristic journey on another world? Ever evolving, the folks at Google have released their latest addiction; Google Mars. Similar in functionality to Google Earth, Google Mars enables users to browse the Martian landscape, as well as historical maps and lander sites. But wait, there’s more; a function known as “Mars in 3D” enables access to imagery via the Mars Odyssey spacecraft, sometimes within hours of release! In fact, with the flood of imagery coming from the Red Planet, YOU may be the the first human to lay eyes on certain features, even before the pros! So much for the “Mars Face” cover up!

Binary Black Holes: One curious question I sometimes hear at public star parties (always from kids) is; what happens when two black holes meet up? Now, scientists may have the opportunity to observe just that. Researchers at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tuscon, Arizona have identified an object that has been long suspected but never found; a binary black hole(s) in the core of a distant galaxy. Spectral signatures of galactic mass monster black holes have long been known; to identify this exotic pair, scientists sifted through the spectra of 17,500 quasars identified in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. The pair are separated by 1/3 of a light year, orbit a common center once every century or so, and weigh in at 20 million and 1 billion solar masses, respectively. Said collision would generate copious amounts of gravity waves and create a merger into an even bigger black hole. The pair orbit close enough that observers should see noticeable velocity changes after only a few years.



Lunar Mocha: Never mind all the other technological hurdles that must be surmounted for a long duration stay on the Moon; how are we gonna make our morning coffee? Take heart, any future lunar Starbucks enterprise will be well powered. One option that NASA is looking at is a small portable Fission Surface Power system that would produce 40w of electricity via nuclear fission of uranium dioxide for a span of about eight years. The device functions around a version of the Stirling engine, and would be able to operate in a shadowed crater or Martian sandstorm, i.e. without sunlight. And plus a nuclear fission powered capo machine would sound just plain cool!



Monitoring the health of Earth: Closer to home, NASA is keeping tabs on the most familiar of worlds; the Earth. Specifically, NASA’s Aqua satellite is being utilized to monitor the health and activity of oceanic phytoplankton. These phytoplankton emit red florescent light as a waste by-product of photosynthesis. These plankton are key to the food chain and account for half of the photosynthesis taking place on Earth. Aqua uses the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer to monitor ocean health.



Kepler results: The Kepler terrestrial planet finder has opened its doors, with stunning early results. Firsts include the first confirmed detection of the atmosphere of an extra-solar planet, HAT-P-7, about 1,000 light years distant. HAT-P-7 flies around its parent star in only 2.2 days, and its light curve is specific enough to actually show the reflection off the cloud tops on the backside of its orbit! Expect more sterling science from Kepler as it continues its 3-5 year stare into the constellation Cygnus!



Astro-Bloopers:We bring you this late breaking astro-blooper courtesy of the new ABC series Defying Gravity. We wanted to catch this show in the wild, i.e. before it got canceled! The premise is an exploratory crew in the near future is sent on a grand tour of the planets, and the overall feel is a curious Grey’s Anatomy meets Enterprise…its too early to say if fans will warm to this mix or not. Our main beef is the fact that they seem to always have instantaneous communications with Earth, even half way to Venus! Sorry guys, comm. still travels at that maddening speed of light! At a stated distance of 30,000,000 km, it would take over 90 seconds for a one way message to transit!



Launches for September: This month features unmanned satellite launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on the 8th (a classified launch known only as PAN) , the 15th, and 30th, a shot by India and Japan on the 10th, and launches out of the Baikonur Cosmodrome on 15th, 18th and 25th. The month’s sole manned mission is also out of Kazakhstan; the Sept. 30th launch of a Soyuz with the ISS Expedition 21 crew. Keep tabs on updates at Spaceflightnow.


This Month in Astro-History: On September 23, 1846, the planet Neptune was discovered. The discovery was a triumph for French mathematician Urban Le Verrier and Newtonian physics in general. The actual observation was carried out by Johann Galle (a theoretician, Le Verrier eschewed the physical act of observation!) using a 9” inch refractor at the Berlin Observatory. Its sobering to think that since Neptune orbits once every 165 years that in 2011, it will have orbited exactly once!

Quote of the Month: “Crème Brûlée!”

– Planetary Researcher Ralph Lorenz, commenting on the consistency of Titan’s surface.


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