March 21, 2019

24.03.11: Comet Elenin: A Great Show, But No Need for Bruce Willis.

There’s a scene in the otherwise fairly decent 1990’s disaster flick Deep Impact where the President played by Morgan Freeman reveals that a cover-up has been ongoing for about a year to keep an impending inbound doomsday comet a secret. Such drama makes most backyard observers chuckle inside; we know that on any given night, legions of observers are looking skyward, hoping to find a body that could immortalize our efforts. By day and on cloudy evenings, we’re at our keyboards, sharing data and computing orbits. Our tools are homemade observatories, sometimes housing instruments that would make some universities blush. It’s extremely unlikely that the “Big One” would slip by the worldwide astronomical community. That’s why I got a brief chortle this morning out of a message board post suggesting that one only need conduct a brief (insert favorite search engine here) scouting of the ‘Net for C/2010 X1 Elenin. The name was familiar to me and observers everywhere; This comet may put on the summer’s best show of the year as it passes perihelion on September 10th at 0.45 A.U. from the Sun and moves into the predawn sky, well positioned for northern hemisphere viewers. Then, in October, Elenin will pass within 0.3 A.U. (about 28 million miles, or 112 lunar distances) from the Earth… Yes, Elenin will probably put on a fairly decent show. One key indicator for this is that it was first spied about 4 A.U. from the Sun; this means that it’s fairly large and intrinsically bright, much like Hale-Bopp. The geometry of the pass is also very similar to the passage of comet McNaught in 2007, which means we may be in for a decent show as Elenin unfurls its dust tail on its way out of the inner solar system. But let’s just dispel some of the gathering Woo out there and state that there is ZERO chance that Elenin will impact the Earth. This is just one cosmic cat that even the likes of Morgan Freeman couldn’t keep in the bag. And no, myself and the legions of astronomers behind me are NOT in cahoots with Big Brother in hushing things up, as we have yet to receive one single pay off, and do our debunking on a pro bono basis.  And, much like comet Halley in 1910, Elenin will unfurl its tail in our direction, but remember, a cometary tail is mostly composed of… nothing! We’re talking a vacuum many orders of magnitude better than what can be done in a laboratory. Yes, nasties such as cyanide have been detected in the spectra of comets, but we aren’t due for a cyanogen bath this summer. Will Elenin sprout the hysteria seen in 1910? You’d think we’d have learned in a centuries time… but as Mark Twain once said, “A lie can travel ‘round the world while the truth is just puttin’ on its shoes…” and that paradigm is never more true than in today’s wired-in world. At very least, “Comet Pills” may be only an E-bay order away this time…


01.02.2011: NEOWISE: Mission Accomplished.

An orbiting sentinel recently completed its secondary science mission. WISE, NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, recently completed an all sky survey for Near Earth Objects (NEOs). Launched in December 2009, WISE’s primary mission was an all sky survey in the infrared spectrum.

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Searching for Robert Burnham.

Sometimes, the quietest minds among us also have the most to share with the world.

Last month, on a warm summer’s day in August, the East Valley Astronomy Club, in connection with the Robert Burnham Jr. Memorial Fund, honored a man with the dedication of a small plaque placed on the Pluto walk at the Lowell Observatory. That man is probably the most unknown, but influential amateur astronomer of the 20th century; Robert Burnham Jr. a man that but for a singular colossal work, might have passed on into total obscurity. The book is Burnham’s Celestial Handbook, a three volume guide to the wonders of the night sky. [Read more...]