January 21, 2020

March 2008: Upcoming Astronews and Notes.

Folks in the northern hemisphere, mark your calendars: spring in the form of the vernal equinox begins at 01:48am EST March 24th. That signals the end of what’s been a long, snowy season for North America, although I bet we’ll see at least one more snow storm here in northern Maine past this date!

Speaking of which, we’ve had some extremely wacky winter weather here at the future site of the Twin Dogs Observatory here in Northern Maine. Last winter, my wife and I reminisced about the snow banks of our youth. Where, we wondered, were the ten foot plus monstrous snow piles of the 1970′s? This winter, we don’t have to wonder: several of our windows are under the snow line. According to the National Weather Service here in Caribou, Maine, we’ve received 145 1/2 inches of snow through to the end of February, which would put us on track for the second snowiest season since records have been kept starting in 1939. However, I have a suspicion that we’ll break the number one mark of 181.1″ set in 1955, as we have already gotten half of March’s average snowfall on the first day! A full write up can be seen at:    http://www.erh.noaa.gov/car/News_Items/2008-03-02_item001.htm

All of this snowy weather has made for a less than optimal astronomy season; gone are the warm winter nights at the Very Small Optical Observatory in Vail, Arizona, were I could let a few clear nights go. However, there has been an explosion of “Virtual Observatories” on the web. Later this year, Microsoft plans to unveil its World Wide Telescope, its answer to Google’s “Google Sky” applet to Google Earth. A brief write up can be seen at:   http://www.itwire.com/content/view/16909/53/

It’s yet to be seen if this will be superior to Google Sky, which, while fun to use, has some short comings. Being that it’s a Microsoft child, I wouldn’t get my hopes up! Look for an up and coming “Our favorite places online” here soon at Astroguyz…

A new planet mnemonic has been officially created for our troubled times.  Ten year old Maryn Smith of Riverview, Montana has coined “My Very Exciting Magic Carpet Just Sailed Under Nine Palace Elephants” winning National Geographic’s contest. It brings newly reassigned dwarf planets Ceres, Pluto, and Eris (formerly Xena) back to the fold. Time will tell if it catches on as well as the old standard “My Very Excellent Mother Just Sent Us Nine Pizzas…” I suppose the “X” in Xena would’ve been hard to fit! For the full story: http://www.space.com/news/ap-080227-planet-mnemonic-contest.html

Shuttle Endeavor is a go for a March 11th launch to the International Space Station; this mission will see the installation of Japan’s Kibo laboratory and Canada’s twin armed robotic arm known as Dextre. Incidentally, the ISS is looking mighty bright on recent passes what with all the construction going on; its definitely work checking out as it glides over head. What’s even cooler to see is to see the Shuttle shortly before or after docking. We caught one such pass last summer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d6sgSsq6Je4 . The big mission of the year is the 4th and final servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope this coming August. This should be a good one to watch on NASA TV…Originally scrubbed, popular demand in both the public, scientific community,  and the astronaut core brought this one back to life. This one mission poses a higher risk because HST orbits in a different inclination than the ISS; in the event the Shuttle is damaged beyond the ability to re-enter, docking for safety at the ISS would not be possible. This was a new parameter established after the Columbia disaster in 2002. The remaining fleet of Endeavour, Atlantis, and Discovery are slated for retirement in 2010.

Speaking of satellite tracking, failing spy satellite USA 193 was successfully shot down on February 20th, the night of the Lunar Eclipse. I spotted it on what turned out to be its last orbit; it was a swift mover over the skies of northern Maine. Here’s the link to the shoot down vid:   http://www.space.com/php/video/player.php?video_id=080221-satellite-kill Many people do not realize that you can track spy satellites from your desktop. (Men in Black, please ignore!) Orbitron is a freeware applet that allows you to track what’s overhead. It’s outstanding in that you can run it in the field as a stand alone application; you only need an internet connection to refresh your Two Line Elements occasionally.

Scientists at Jet Propulsion Laboratories are puzzled at what’s been dubbed the “Pioneer Anomaly”… the timings of signals being sent back by deep space probes show a tiny but discernable lag. First noted during the Pioneer missions launched in the early 70′s, this phenomena was most recently noted during an analysis of the NEAR mission to the asteroid Eros, which showed a discrepancy of 13 millimeters per second. The Messenger flyby of Earth on its way to the planet Mercury was the only one of six missions analyzed to not show this discrepancy. One culprit is suspected to be anomalies in the rotational speed of the Earth itself, the platform on which we receive the signals. At best, tiny unwanted venting events aboard the spacecraft may also be to blame; at worst, the theory of gravity itself may be in the need of tweaking! To see the full story:  http://www.space.com/scienceastronomy/080229-spacecraft-anomaly.html

A discussion group I’m part of recently passed on a Lunar Survival test site: http://www.justsayhi.com/bb/moon . The scenario assumes you’ve crash landed on the Moon and have to hike across the lunar terrain to safety. I did terrible at it; some things are assumed, such as you’d be able to consume rations while wearing a space suit. Maybe its equipped with food delivery tubes, or something!

The Full Moon this month comes on March 21st at 18:40 Universal Time. This moon is known as the Full Worm Moon by the Algonquin Indians. A full list of moon names can be seen at:     http://www.almanac.com/astronomy/moonnames.php

Spring time can also be the best time from mid latitudes to observe the Zodiacal Light. This is because the ecliptic stands nearly straight up form the horizon. Look for a pyramid shaped glow in the dawn or dusk sky spanning maybe a third of the way towards the zenith from the location the sun has set or will rise. Be sure to view from a dark site; the least little bit of light pollution will obscure it. Zodiacal light is caused by scattered dust particles reflecting sunlight along the ecliptic.

The smallest exoplanet yet discovered has been discovered orbiting a pulsar 1,500 light years distant. Located in the constellation Virgo, the pulsar PSR B1257+12 was also the site of the first extra-solar planets discovered back in 1992.  The mass of the planet is about one-fifth that of Pluto, and brings the number of known worlds in this system to four. The system bears a resemblance to a scaled down version of our own solar system. The planets were discovered by an unorthodox method. Astronomers inferred the existence of the remote worlds by teasing out minute “glitches” in the pulsar timing signals. For further info, see: http://www.spaceflightnow.com/news/n0502/11planet/

Finally, Daylight Savings Time took effect in the United States on 2am, March 9th. Its that time to wind forward one hour. Our apollogies to anyone who didn’t get to work on time on Monday as a result of Astroguyz. Believe me, if we had our way, our calendar would be simplified. After all, we’re supposed to be a 24 hour culture, right?


  1. [...] on a wall programmer art being as it is, and some definitely qualify as artwmarilynl.newsvine.comMarch 2008: Upcoming Astronews and Notes.Folks in the northern hemisphere, mark your calendars: spring in the form of the vernal equinox [...]

  2. [...] resulting from sunlight backscattered across a dispersed layer of interplanetary dust. The zodiacal light was a common sight for us from the dark skies of Arizona, often rivaling the distant glow of Tucson [...]

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