October 18, 2019

AstroNews & Notes: September 2008.

Virgin Galactic 2.0: Sir Richard Branson and Burt Rutan recently unveiled Virgin Galactics’ newest flagship; Mother ship “Eve,”

the new White Knight Two carrier that will ferry Space Ship Two passengers into sub-orbital flight. Scheduled for its first ferry flights in 2009, Eve will have a service ceiling of 50,000 feet and be capable of up to three flights a day, day or night. The aircraft sports ground breaking carbon composite technology, including the largest carbon composite wing spar, at 140 ft in length. Over 100 folks are already signed up for flights, which are scheduled to begin about a year after the testing of Space Ship Two. Anybody listening? Astroguyz would be happy to provide a review of the service in exchange for a seat!

Enceladus Revisited: The Cassini spacecraft recently completed its closest flyby of Saturn’s’ icy moon Enceladus; on August 11th, it passed within 30 miles of the moon’s South Pole. Stunning images have been posted at NASA’s JPL website. For an encore, even closer passes are planned in October of only 16 miles! Since the discovery of ice geysers on the moon by the Cassini spacecraft, Enceladus has been in the astronomical spotlight.

New Dwarf Planet: Add another Plutoid to the growing pile… on March 31st, 2005, astronomers spotted a distant but bright Kuiper belt object. Designated 2005 FY9 , it later got the unglamorous name 136472, then the unofficial designation Easter Bunny, due to its discovery near Easter. Now, the International Astronomical Union has given the distant world a mythologically correct designation of Makemake (pronounced Mahk-E-Mahk-E), after the fertility god of the natives of Easter Island (get it?). Makemake ranks 3rd in Plutoid size, behind Eris and Pluto, and is thus far the only Plutoid without a moon.

Relativity Proven… Again: Einstein’s Theory of Relativity continues to pass every test devised for it.  Recently, astronomers at the Green Bank radio telescope have completed a four year study of a very unique system; a binary pulsar. Located 1,700 light years distant, the pair orbits a half million mile barycenter in only 2.5 hours! This compact configuration emanates a copious amount of gravity waves.  The pair is also eclipsing, meaning that the orbit is edge on to our line of sight. This allows astronomers to pinpoint the amount of precession, or wobbling, imparted on the pulsars by monitoring minute changes in their oscillation as they eclipse one another. These estimates dovetail well with predictions made by general relativity. Other proofs are gravitational lensing (first noted during the famous 1919 solar eclipse), frame dragging, and gravity waves (think LIGO project).

Ancient Mars Reshaped by Impact? Students of Martian geology know that the two hemispheres of Mars are strikingly different; the north is dominated by young low land areas while the south is composed of ancient, cratered highland. Now simulations conducted by Planetary Scientists at the University of California have suggested that a huge impactor, a third to one half the size of Earth’s moon, may have been responsible for stripping the crust of the northern hemisphere. Interestingly, the simulation dates the impact to about 4 billion years ago, around the time an impact on Earth was thought to have created Earth’s moon. Clearly, the inner solar system was a dangerous neighborhood in those days! Also, this lends thought to the potential for interplanetary cross seeding of material and perhaps life.

South Pole Aurorae: While its summertime in the Northern hemisphere, its wintertime down under. Hardy souls that man the South Pole Telescope were recently treated to a dazzling display of Aurora Australialis, the southern counterpart of the Aurora Borealis, on July 5th. Science Leader, J. Dana Hrubes says it makes his 1 mile, on foot commute worth it! August temps at the South Pole frequently reach in access of -100° F, cold enough to freeze CO2!

The Aurorae of Saturn: Speaking of aurora, the same phenomena has recently observed on the planet Saturn.  The auroral ovals of Saturn are vastly different than those of Earth. The Earth’s magnetosphere is powered by super charged particles from the sun crashing into it that are ultimately funneled into the polar regions. Planets such as Jupiter (Which has an immense magnetic field!) have their aurora supplied by a nearby source, such as the volcanically active moon Io. There, material is funneled along magnetic field lines until slamming into the planet’s high rotational rate, known as “co-rotation breakdown”. What supplies Saturnian aurorae isn’t immediately clear; icy geysers from the moon Enceladus (see above) are suggested as a possible smoking gun. A hybrid theory, positing a mix of Terrestrial and Jovian systems, has also been suggested.

Lunar Prototypes Tested: NASA Ames research center recently tested future lunar exploration technology this past June, in a dry lake bed in Moses Lake, Washington. The tests included two rovers, one of which will be a manned, heavy duty “space truck”… what kind of license will be needed for this big rig? NASA plans more tests next month in October at a as of yet undisclosed site.

New Beer: Blue moon Breweries, a subsidiary of Coors, has released what is rapidly becoming our favorite Astro-brew; Harvest moon is an awesome pumpkin beer. We picked it up at Publix grocery recently; now we just need to sample the winter ale to make the circle complete. Hey guys, how ‘bout a dark, “Total Eclipse” brew?

Astro Blooper of the Month: While catching a rerun of Star Trek: the Next Generation, entitled “The First Duty,” Wesley crusher incorrectly refers to his closest approach to Titan as perigee, which only pertains to an object in orbit around the Earth! Not a terrible mistake for a rank cadet; but then no less the commandant of Star Fleet Academy herself repeats the same mistake! Generic farthest and closest points of an orbit are the Apoapsis and Periapsis, respectively. An exhaustive list of object specific terms can be had at this link.

Full Moon of the Month: The September full moon is the most well known, the Harvest Moon. This is the Moon closest to the Autumnal Equinox, and is referred to as such because in before the age of artificial lighting, the rising moon would give farmers a few extra hours of illumination to bring in their crops. The Full Moon occurs on   September 15th at 5:15, EDT.

Quote of the Month: “There’s a coherent plan in the universe, though I don’t know what it’s a plan for.”

-Fred Hoyle, Astronomer & Science Fiction writer.

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