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Sunday, April 30

CAS Members websites

Not much happening news-wise at the moment, so I thought I'd take some time out from the usual news items to plug the websites of some of our own CAS members. These sites give a flavour of what CAS members are up to, and are well worth a look !

Robin Leadbeater's website: [http://www.leadbeaterhome.fsnet.co.uk/astro.htm]

Robin has developed and expertise for what is known as "unconventional imaging", that is using web cams and similar low cost imagers to capture high resolution images of the night sky. Many amateurs have used this technique to take images of planets which rival those from the largest ground based telescopes. Some of Robin's early work on his website includes planets and familiar 'deep sky objects'. However, Robin has adapted the technique to more scientific observing including measuring the redshift of distant quasars, detecting extrasolar planets, measuring the spectrum of a variety of objects, including most recently the total solar eclipse in March 2006. Robin's feats have earned him plenty of coverage in local and astronomy media and even an appearance on BBC's Sky at Night television programme. He has also written an article for Sky at Night magazine. Details of all Robin's projects are on his website.

Linda Davison's website: [http://uk.geocities.com/linda_davison@btinternet.com/]

Linda specialises in what I would call nightscapes. Her photographs capture the essence of astronomy by showing the beauty of the night sky as part of the landscape. Most of her images are wide field images, usually with some foreground interest as well. Linda's work has mostly been achieved using a film camera and a simple homemade 'barn door' tracker. The results are stunning. More recently Linda has acquired a digital SLR.

Linda has published a book of her photographs of comet Hale-Bopp, and has had photographs published in astronomy magazines. She also sells framed prints of her photographs.

Jerry Hunt's website: [http://www.j.g.hunt.freeuk.com/]

Jerry's site showcases his excellent astrophotographs. The images are generally taken with a digital SLR through Jerry's 6 inch refractor. Mainly focusing on deep sky objects the pictures are spectacular and Jerry has had several published in Astronomy Now magazine. Jerry will be giving us a talk on his techniques at our September CAS meeting.

I know other CAS members are keen astrophotographers, and have produced so impressive results. If you have a website you would like to share with others let me know and I'll post a link here.

Alternatively if people have one or two images we could start a member's photos on the CAS website.

Friday, April 28

Comet reported now visible with unaided eye

Latest report from an experienced observer in Northern Ireland is that the two brightest fragments of Comet Schwassmann-Wachmann (B and C) are now "easy objects" with 10x50 binoculars and even just visible with the unaided eye. See Stuart's blog for where to look.

In the meantime Hubble as been taking a look too and has seen "house sized chunks" breaking off the B and G fragments. See the Hubble website for the full story.

Thursday, April 27

CAS April Meeting Report

Our April meeting was probably our busiest to date with a total of four presentations.
Chris gave a very brief news update including news from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Venus Express and Kuiper Belt object 2003 UB313.

Next Caroline made her debut talk at CAS. Despite her worries, it was an excellent talk, professionally delivered! The history of meteors, what they are and lots of tips on how to observe them. There were some amazing woodcut drawings of the great meteor storm of 1833 which really fired the imagination.

During the break there was plenty of discussion on astronomy topics, and people seemed reluctant to break out of. The was also a chance to review the latest astronomy magazines etc.

After the break Robin gave a fascinating report on his recent trip to Turkey to observe the total solar eclipse. He included behind the scene pictures from the BBC Sky at Night eclipse programme, some amazing pictures of the eclipse from other amateurs on the trip, and of course Robin's own spectroscopy work during the eclipse. Overall this gave a really good appreciated in the experience and I'm sure started a few people thinking "maybe next time" !

Finally Bill gave us a update on what's in the night sky for May including a look at a piece of astronomy freeware call Planets which allows you to look a the position of Jupiter's moons on any given night.

Thanks to everyone who presented, and particularly Caroline for such an excellent first talk.

Saturday, April 22

Comet Schwassmann-Wachmann cracks up before our eyes!

I took advantage of the first clear night for ages to take a look at Comet 73P Schwassmann-Wachmann last night which broke into several fragments in 1995 and is making a close pass of earth over the next couple of months.
A few days ago fragment B was reported to have brightened considerably. It is now clear from this image taken with my telescope and modified webcam that the fragment has now broken up further into two roughly equal chunks. (The false colour image is magnified x2 and coloured to show the "double head" more clearly. The narrow streaks around the comet are background stars trailed by the long exposure as the comet rushes across the field of view)
With any luck the two brightest fragments B and C will brighten sufficiently to be easily seen in binoculars over the next few weeks but as we have just seen, comets can be unpredictable!

Thursday, April 20

This is planet Earth . . .

Nowadays we are used to seeing the Earth from space. We see pictures in books, magazines, films, natural history programmes, and even daily on the weather forecasts. However it hasn't always been like that.

Only 50 years ago mankind had never seen the view of the Earth from space. Probably the most famous groundbreaking image was the one taken by Apollo 8 astronauts on their way to the moon in 1968.

The impact of this first image was predicted by British Astronomer Fred Hoyle in his book "The Nature of the Universe" in 1955. He said

"Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from outside, is available, we shall, in an emotional sense, acquire an additional dimension.

. . . . and a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose. And I think this not so distant development may well be for good, as it must have the effect of exposing the futility of nationalistic strife."

More recently NASA's Messenger probe (on its way to Mercury, via a very extended route) has returned these pictures of the Earth taken on it's recent flyby. Even though we have moved on 50 years I think these new images are no less thought provoking if you take a moment to think about them.

Image: NASA. Click Image for larger version. Or here for a labelled version

The red-brown color on the image on the right is due to the image including infrared light. Trees and plant reflect most of the infrared light falling on them and hence areas of heavy vegetation (South American rainforest in this case) appear reddish.

CAS Observing Night Cancelled

Unfortunately we still don't have a location for our observing sessions. So consequently our planned session tomorrow night is off.

We are still working on finding a new location. Watch this space.

CAS April meeting - 25th April 2006

Our April CAS meeting should be busy, with plenty to cover. In addition to the usual round up of space and astronomy news, Caroline will be giving a talk on observing meteors. This is Caroline's first talk at CAS so let's have a good turn out (but try not to look too intimidating ;-) )

It's really encouraging that we are getting a few more people willing to have a go at presenting a talk. Dennis has agreed to give a talk on making a simple refractor at our May meeting. It certainly makes for a more varied (and full) programme. If anyone else want's to give a talk please let us know.

Robin will also be giving us a report on the recent total solar eclipse, and his trip to Turkey to watch (or perhaps that should be 'experience') it.

Wednesday, April 19

Inside a nova star

A while ago we mentioned a nova star was visible in the constellation Ophiuchus. A nova is a star which suddenly flares up to several times its normal brightness. The star in question, known as RS Ophiuchi (yes I don't know how to pronounce it either!), is a recurrent nova which last flared up in 1985. The star is around 5,000 light years away.

Image Credit: David A. Hardy/www.astroart.org & PPARC.

Astronomers have been studying the most recent event with a variety of instruments, and have recently released some of their findings.

RS Oph is a double star which consists of a white dwarf star (about the same size as the Earth) and a much larger red giant star. Astronomers believe that material from the red giant is falling onto the white dwarf, adding mass to it. Every so often enough material is present to fuel a runaway nuclear reaction. This results in the rapid and relatively short lived outburst we see from Earth. In the course of a day the stars energy increase to 100,000 times the energy output of our sun !

Early warning of this most recent flare-up was provided by amateur astronomers. This allows many of the worlds large ground based and space telescopes to watch the event unfold in a number of different wavelengths including; radio, X-ray, visible and infrared light. The amount of information gained is therefore much larger than any similar event in the past.

Analysis of these data has lead astronomers to conclude that the neutron star is actually orbiting within the 'wind' generated by the red giant, within the outer layers that the star is shedding ! High energy radiation emitted is thought to be due to the burst of radiation from the white dwarf interacting with the wind from the red giant.

This is an excellent example of how amateur astronomers can really assist in astronomy research. It also shows how a range of both ground-based and space telescopes can collaborate (at short notice) to observe the same event in different wavelengths. To quote the Royal Astronomical Society press release "26 February 2006 was a highlight of the observational campaign. In what must surely be a unique event, four space satellites, plus radio observatories around the globe, observed RS Oph on the same day."

See Robin's observations and spectra of the nova here .

Lidl 10x50 binoculars are back!

If there is anyone still looking for a pair of these excellent value Meade/Bresser branded 10x50 binoculars, then they are back in Lidl next week.

Add a Planisphere and a book like Collins Gem Stars and you are all set to explore the heavens for less than £30!

Tuesday, April 18

First views of Venus south pole

Venus Express has returned its first images of Venus. This image shows the south polar region of Venus, which has never been imaged before. These images are a composite of images taken in different light wavelengths. The main feature visible is a large vortex in the thick atmosphere above the pole.

Astronomers expected to see this vortex, as there is a similar one above the north polar region. The artist's impression below, shows what a close up of these 'storms' might look like. We should see more details as the first images were taken from over 200,000 km, when in its final orbit it will be as close as 250 km.

Image Credits: ESA

Thursday, April 13

Hubble measures the size of 2003 UB313

Remember the catchily named 2003 UB313 (better known as Xena)? That's the Kuiper Belt Object discovered last year and determined to be bigger than Pluto, re-ingniting the whole "is Pluto a planet?" debate.

Image: NASA - artist impression of Xena - [click for a labelled version]

At the time astronomers calculated it was definitely bigger then Pluto, but possibly only just so. Earlier this year a team using data at radio wavelengths determined that it was a much as 30% bigger than Pluto.

Now the Hubble Space Telescope has imaged the object in enough resolution to allow its diameter to be measured directly. It turns out it is only just bigger than Pluto after all.

Image: NASA - Hubble's view of Xena

You may remember that the original estimate was made by assuming that Xena reflected all the light falling on it, to give a pessimistic estimate of the size. So the implication of the Hubble measurement is that Xena actually does reflect virtually all the light that falls on it. Technically it has an albedo of almost 1.0.

The only other body in the solar system we know of which does this is Saturn's moon Enceladus. We now know that Enceladus is so bright because it has active geysers depositing fresh ice on the surface. So the question is what keeps Xena so bright ?

Perhaps it would be useful to have a quick recap of what's 'out there' in the Kuiper Belt ? The picture below shows our current understanding of the relative sizes of the largest known Kuiper Belt Objects

Image: NASA [click for larger version]

Tuesday, April 11

Venus Express Successfully in orbit

Image Credit: ESA - AOES Medialab

European Space Agency scientists and engineers are celebrating the successful arrival of Venus Express. Everything went as planned with the engine burn being exactly to time. All indications are that the spacecraft is healthy.

Comments from the post 'Venus orbit insertion' press conference are excellently reported (as usual) on Emily Lakdawala's Planetary Society blog .

Because everything went so well the spacecraft has more fuel left onboard than originally planned, with mission engineering indicating there may be enough fuel for 4-6 years of operations. The initial mission is planned to last around 2 years (that's just over two Venus days !).

Initial indications are that the first data from the probe will be available within 48 hours. There will not be any spectacular surface images like we are used to seeing from Mars, but I'm sure we will learn plenty about Earth's sister planet. We'll have a full report at our April CAS meeting (that's Tuesday 25th April).


Venus facts at nineplanets and wikipedia.
Venus Express website.

Monday, April 10

Venus Express arrives tomorrow

Don't forget Venus Express is due to enter Venus orbit tomorrow. For details of times etc see this entry on Emily Lakdawala's Planetary Society Blog.

Also there's the BBC/OU Stardate special "Mysteries of Venus" on Wednesday night.

More on CAS News when we get details of the orbit insertion.

Mars Rover update

The first pictures from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have hogged the headline for the last few days, and Venus Express will hopefully be in the headlines for the right reasons this week. So, just chance to catch up with news from the explorers on the surface of Mars.


Opportunity has been spending many weeks at Erebus crater gathering data and sending back some spectacular images (see below). It has now left that area and is heading south for the impressive looking Victoria crater. This is the largest crater any of the rovers will visit (other than Gusev Crater, that Spirit has spent all it's time in, but that's a different order of magnitude all together !).

Image NASA - False colours are used to bring out subtle variations in colour in this image of Erebus crater. ]Click image for the full panorama]

Victoria promises to be an amazing place to visit. The crater is about half the size of the famous Meteor Crater in Arizona. For a preview check out Stuart's post "Victoria beckons !" on Cumbrian Sky. The crater is now just visible on the horizon of the latest pictures sent back by the rover (see here), but it will probably be around July before the rover reaches the crater.


Meanwhile Spirit is struggling. The rovers front wheel has seized and it needs to get to higher south facing ground to maximise the power from its solar panels during the Martian winter months. It is literally a race against time, the rover operators on Earth having to drive the rover backwards, dragging the frozen wheel behind. An unexpected bonus of this approach is that Spirit has revealed bright deposits just under the surface, as the frozen wheel digs a trench in the Martian soil.

Image NASA: Spirits crippled wheel reveals bright sub-surface soil [click to enlarge].

As the rover races towards McCool hill, nowhere is the plight of the rover better summed up than in this poem by our friend Stuart.

Sunday, April 9

Cassini Images

Not to be out-done by MRO (the new kid on the block) Cassini is still sending some fantastic images of Saturn and it's moons back to Earth. The two pictures below show details in the cloud structure at the 'surface' of Saturn. These atmospheric features and the mechanisms which drive them are still not well understood. Cassini has provided much evidence which is being used to determine what is going on, and in particular why there is a marked difference between the northern and southern hemispheres of Saturn.

Images: NASA (more details on the Cassini/Huygens website)

Saturday, April 8

More from MRO

More options for downloading the MRO releases are now available, and I've had a bit more time to play around with the images. The following images are closeups of the main images released yesterday. Emily Lakdawalla at the Planetary Society has had the same idea, but has done a much more professional job here.

Image Credit: NASA

Click images above for a scaled down version of the full image. More on these at our April CAS Meeting.

Friday, April 7

First colour picture from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter released

The HiRise camera onboard Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has sent back its first colour image of the surface of Mars.

Image Credit: NASA

The image shows details of craters and channels in Mars southern hemisphere. The full image is 32MB in size so is not posted here! Follow the link on the MRO homepage if you want to download the full image.

More images are due to be released today (7th April) check the HiRise website for updates.

Was Mercury formed by a massive impact?

Astronomers have know for years that Mercury is more dense than the other 'terrestrial' planets in the inner solar system. Why is this ?

Recent computer modeling work carried out at the University of Bern has provided a possible explanation. The team carrying out the research believe that a much larger proto-mercury was hit by a large body causing a massive impact, over 4.5 billion years ago. Their model shows that much of the material ejected into space could have been swept away by the sun's radiation before could fall back to the planet (a process which could take up to 4 million years).

Image credit: Horner et Al

This would leave only the denser core of the proto-planet to form the Mercury we see today. Interestingly the material swept away could have found it's way to Venus and Earth. The team estimates up to 16 million billion tonnes (that's 16 x 10^19 tonnes if you prefer scientific notation !) could have ended up as part of Earth ! See press release here.

Image Credit: NASA

We should learn more about Mercury over the next few years as the NASA Messenger probe is on its way to the planet. However, the probe is taking one of the most indirect route of any spacecraft with one flyby of Earth, two Venus Flybys and three flybys of Mercury itself before finally going into orbit early in 2011 ! The spacecraft has already traveled over 1 billion miles. Full details of the mission are on the Messenger website.

This will be the first probe to visit the solar system's innermost planet since Mariner 10 in 1975.

Thursday, April 6

Venus Express arrives next week

European Space Agency's Venus Express is due to arrive at Venus and enter orbit next week. On Wednesday 11th April, the probe will fire it's main engine for 51 minutes to slow it down, allowing it to be captured by Venus' gravity.

This will be the first orbiter at Venus for many years, and promises to provide us with plenty of new images and information. For more details of the timeline for Venus orbit insertion see the Planetary Society website here.

In conjunction with the arrival, Open University and BBC are running a special Stardate Mysteries of Venus programme on 12th April. For details see the Stardate page.


Main website updated

I've finally got around to updating some pages on the main CAS website at www.cockermouthastronony.co.uk. Updates include;
  • Revised 2006 Programme now available (showing meetings and events for the full year)
  • Meeting reports from the February and March meetings added.
I am still looking for contributions to the website from members. These could be; articles, photos, reviews of books/software/websites etc or anything similar. If you can contribute contact me at chris@cockermouthastronomy.co.uk

Wednesday, April 5

Mini Moons around Saturn

Click Image for larger version [Image: NASA]

Scientists analysing Cassini images of Saturn ring system have discovered a new class of 'moon'. These moons lie within the ring systems and are only 100m or so in diameter, much smaller than moons like Pan and Daphnis which have been know about for some time.

The presence of these large objects (small moons) in the rings gives support to the theory that the rings were formed when a larger moon was ripped apart by Saturn's gravity. These moons would be the largest remnants of that body.

Propeller shaped features [Image: NASA]

The 'mini moons' are not large enough to clear gaps in the rings, instead they leave what are described as 'propeller shape gaps' in the rings. It is these gaps that have been seen in the Cassini images and match computer models. Interestingly the images are not recent, they are among the earliest taken by Cassini when it first arrived at Saturn and crossed the ring plane. That ring crossing was the closest that Cassini will ever do, and hence the most detailed photographs of the rings we will get.

More details on Universe Today, and the Cassini website.

Tuesday, April 4

An evening with the Eddington Astronomical Society

The guest speaker at the Eddington Astronomical Society's April meeting was our own Robin Leadbeater. As well as Robin three more CAS members made the trip to Kendal last night to catch up with Stuart, meet EAS members and support Robin. The evening was well worth the trip.

The evening started with Stuart's introduction and news items, where Stu again showcased his ability to track down some of the most stunning images on the web. There was a report on EAS recent successful eclipse watch in Kendal, and some excellent photos from EAS members.

Following a break for coffee and biscuits among the photographs of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Exhibition, it was time for Robin's talk. The subject was 'Spectroscopy' and Robin started from the basics, including a demonstration of spectroscopy in action, highlighted the many ways spectroscopy has added to our knowledge of the universe. Towards the end of the talk, there was details of Robin's own work, as featured on "The Sky at Night". Finally Robin showed us the results of his observing of the total solar eclipse in Turkey. This was an excellent talk which we must hear at CAS sometime (I believe Border Astronomical Society are due to hear it soon).

All in all it was a great night. Thanks to Stuart, and all the EAS members for making us feel so welcome. I hope we'll see some of them at CAS events in the future.

For a full meeting report see Cumbrian Sky here. Also see Stu's comment on a recent CAS News post here.

Sunday, April 2

CAS News goes from strength to strength

CAS News has passed a couple of landmarks recently with our 50th article being posted (Robin's Solar eclipse report getting that honour) and now over 200 visits to the site (since records began etc . . etc. )

Anyway that hopefully shows that people are finding the site useful. A dozen our so people, are now signed up to the email subscription service, and get CAS News direct to their inbox every morning (including pictures if they choose), without even having to go to the website. Just to remind you that you can find details of how to sign up for email here.

We now also have four contributors, so more opportunties for interesting articles. However you can also contribute. . . .

One of the key advantages of 'blogs' over other websites is the ability to add comments to articles or 'posts' as they are knon. You can add comments to any of the articles on CAS News easily. A comment is just a small message which could be; a question, additional information you have found, a link to a relevant website, or even something interesting but unrelated.

It is easy to leave a comment, and you don't even need to put your name on it (although it would help). At the bottom of each post you will see a line which starts "posted by ###" then a time, on the right hand side is a link which usually says "0 Comments" or "1 Comments", just follow that link to add your comment. See the picture below.

We look forward to getting your comments and questions, and you'll be helping to expand CAS News.

Saturday, April 1

Total Eclipse view from Turkey

No time for a full report I am afraid - Other priorities are encroaching, so you will have to wait for the April meeting. But just to say Wow!!! what an experience. It certainly made up for being clouded out in France with minutes to go in '99.

Apart from Gwen and I just enjoying the event, my main focus was spectroscopy. You can see some preliminary results on my website and don't forget to watch/record the Sky at Night Eclipse Special on Sunday night (12:45 AM BBC1) you might just see a familiar face ;-)

By the way I am talking about spectroscopy at The Eddington Society in Kendal on Monday evening. If anyone from CAS is going, would like a lift and is on my route, please get in touch.


I've just heard that the eclipse spectroscopy will not feature on Sky at Night this month after all due to lack of space in a packed programme. They still plan to show it next month though.