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Friday, February 24

CAS Meeting - 28th February 2006

Don't forget our regular CAS Meeting is on Tuesday 28th February, 7.30pm St Joseph's Church Hall.

Bill will be giving us a guided tour to some of the best astronomy software out there. It is all available for free, or a shareware. Below are a couple of screen shots as tasters . . .

We will have a free CD available with the software on it to save you downloading the software yourself.

I will also be covering the latest space news, and we'll have a look at what's up in the night sky.

Hope to see you on Tuesday.

Hubble Confirms Pluto's New Moons

The Hubble Space Telescope has provided new images which confirm the two new moons of Pluto announced last year.

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, H. Weaver (JHU/APL), A. Stern (SwRI), and the HST Pluto Companion Search Team

The moons have been shown to be in the same orbital plane as Pluto's main moon Charon. This leads astronomers to believe that all three moons formed at the same time, rather than the smaller moons being captured later, as is the case for the smaller moons of Jupiter, Saturn etc.

A theory being proposed now is that the three moons were formed during a massive collision between Pluto and another large body. As result pieces were separated from Pluto and became the moons, in much the same way most astronomers believe our own moon was formed. There is even talk of Pluto having rings!

The next step will be to name the new moons. Of course the debate still continues as to whether Pluto is a planet or not. . . . .

BBC Sky at Night and Apollo programmes

Sky at Night presenter Chris Lintott reminds us about the upcoming Sky at Night programme in his blog.

If you have access to digital TV, and BBC Four you can see the next edition of the programme on Monday night 27th February. On the same night is a programme about the Apollo moon landings.

Sunday, February 19

Dark Stuff, or funny gravity?

In response to Chris’ recent post on the improvement to Einstein’s theory, there is of course, some observational support for the dark energy/dark matter model of the universe. Namely, the recent WMAP (Wilkinson MicrowaveAnisotropy Probe) data - http://map.gsfc.nasa.gov/m_uni/uni_101matter.html. This shows in incredible detail, the structure of the microwave background radiation, and is an extension of the COBE (Cosmic Background Explorer) experiment. This pattern or “fingerprint” has been compared with various models of the universe, and it is claimed to support a model in which 4% of the universe is ordinary matter; 21% dark matter, and 75% dark energy (called the “Standard Model”). It may be that the “fingerprint” will also support the modified gravitational theory reported by Chris - http://www.pparc.ac.uk/Nw/EinsteinTheory.asp
, and I’d be surprised if the people at WMAP, weren’t already looking at this. You need to bear in mind that using the WMAP fingerprint to support the Standard Model, is a bit like claiming support for the theory of evolution from nothing more than a human fingerprint. As Chris suggests, the debate will go on for a long time yet. It’s a bit like the big bang vs. steady state debate that took place a few decades ago.
I’d suggest you check ot the links in this article; but none of us are capable of “weighing the evidence”, and making a judgment as to which theory is correct. Check them out anyway, it’s a fascinating debate to watch. A recent Horizon program using the WMAP result, argued very strongly in favour of the standard model

Friday, February 17

Einstein's Theory 'Improved' ?

Physicists working at St Andrews University in Scotland have proposed an alteration to Einsteins theory of gravity (general relativity), which potentially solves the problems of 'dark matter' in the universe.

It has been known for a long time that the amount of visible matter in the universe (stars, planets, galaxies etc) accounts for only about 5% of the mass needed to explain the observed expansion of the universe. Also on a more local level, dark matter is needed to explain the fact the galaxies remain in one piece rather than flying apart due to the rate the are spinning. General relativity predicts that there is not enough gravitational force (due the the mass of stars etc) holding the galaxies together to overcome the outward force exerted by the spinning. However, no-one has yet managed to identify this dark matter and so-called dark energy.

The potential for the gravitational laws, developed by Newton and refined by Einstein, to be wrong has been postulated for many years. In that sense this is not a 'new' theory. What the physicists have managed to do now is propose an actual modification to the law which essentially relies on the proposal that gravity is stronger over large distances than current theories predict. If this is the case there would be no need for the dark matter. However, anyone (well OK, anyone with the brain the size of a planet) could tweak a theory to match one set of observations. The key is that this new theory is what scientists call 'falsifiable', that is it make predictions about the universe which can be tested through observation. It those predictions don't match observation, then the theory if false, and it's back to the drawing board.

Lets face it, many of us must retain a healthy amount of scepticism about a theory which requires 95% of the universe to be 'hidden' and then goes on to suggest weird and wonderful types of dark matter and dark energy to make up the remainder.

There's still a long way to go in this leading edge area of cosmology and physics.

See press release from PPARC

Wednesday, February 15

A look ahead to our February meeting

Our February meeting will concentrate on Astronomy software. Bill, our resident software guru, has been rooting out the best of free and shareware software out there. I've had a sneak preview of the software today, and there is some amazing stuff out there for free.

Some of the software will be old favourites to many of us, but there are updated versions with new features. Bill will give us a whistle stop tour of the best software, and hopefully we will have a few PC's on hand for people to have some hands on testing after the main talk.

Best of all Bill has put together a FREE CD of all the best software to save you the bother of downloading it all (there's over 600MB in total). Bill's selection includes software for PC's of all ages so there's something for everyone. So come along to our meeting on Tuesday 28th February to tour the universe on your own PC . . . for free!

P.S. If you are a MAC user perhaps you could help us, by letting us know what's available for MACs. We could post an article with links on our website.

Saturn's Spectacular Storm

Cassini has imaged a spectacular storm in Saturn's atmosphere. The affects of the storm were first detected in radio wavelengths, by the probes radio instruments. The radio emissions are thought to be due to lightning 1000 times more powerful than storms on Earth!

The storm itself is larger than the whole of the United States, it is the largest ever recorded on Saturn. The storm was actually first imaged by amateur astronomers near Paris, before Cassini captured this image. At the time of detection the probe was on the night side of the planet. The image below is the same Cassini image 'reprojected' to represent the view from directly overhead and enhanced to show the fine details of the storm.

Images: NASA / Cassini

Monday, February 13

Chance to Spot a Famous Nova !

Novae are stars which from time to time suddenly flare up to become hundreds of times brighter than normal. Some apparently do this only once, others regularly flare at intervals of days to years. Recurrent Nova RS Ophiuchi is in between, having produced outbursts in 1898, 1933, 1958, 1967, and 1985. Yesterday it flared up again, brightening by several hundred times to a potentially unaided eye magnitude of 4.5. You can read more about this famous star on the American association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) website.

If you want to have a go at observing it, you are going to have to get up early I am afraid. You will also need a good SE horizon as the constellation Ophiuchus is low in the SE in the pre dawn sky from here. You can see a more detailed finder chart here. (Note this chart is upside down with south at the top to correspond with the view in an astronomical telescope) If you are lucky you might spot it with the unaided eye, but it should be obvious in binoculars for the next couple of weeks, fading by perhaps a magnitude per week. You are looking for an extremely red star, caused by glowing Hydrogen (H alpha)

Good Hunting!

Saturday, February 11

The Ultimate Telescope Mount?

If you own a telescope, you will know the importance of a good mount. You know the feeling; the one you have is never quite good enough, particularly if you are into astrophotography. Well if you are quick you can perhaps buy the ultimate mount. (Can you guess what it was originally used for - see the link (E-bay) for full details) It even comes with a 250mm aperture f5 refractor! Better call the bank manager first though as the price is an eye-watering $100,000 (ono)

More potential evidence of life on Mars

See this article on Stuart's Cumbrian Sky blog, for an update on evidence for life in Martian meteorites.

Thursday, February 9

Astrophotography Lecture - Kendal 24th February

We briefly mentioned this during our January meeting but didn't get as far as working out who if anyone was going. . . .

On Friday 24th February there is a lecture in Kendal (organized by Stuart) on Astrophotography by Graham Sinegola. Graham is an accomplished astrophotographer and will be talking about his techniques as well as showing some of his own pictures.

If you are interested in going, we will have to act quickly as Stuart needs numbers in advance. Key details are the lecture starts at 7pm, so we will need to leave Cockermouth at about 5.30pm, and the cast is £2 per person.

If you want to go please contact me at chris@cockermouthastronomy.co.uk depending on numbers we will try and co-ordinate transport. I will need to know by Friday 10th at the latest.

Wednesday, February 8

Spirit strikes gold at Homeplate

Mars Rover Spirit has now descended from the Columbia hills and is exploring a region named 'Homeplate' by mission scientists. [See this Cumbrian Sky Post for details and this one].

Image: NASA [Click image for larger version]

A close up below:

This image has just been released, which shows we are in for a treat over the next few months. The area is just covered with layered rocks which look like they are sedimentary rocks layered down by deposits from ancient lakes in the giant Gusev crater. Obviously that's the task of the scientists to determine the composition and origin of these rocks. In the meantime we can just admire the images, and imagine being there . . .

More information at the Planetary Society Blog here

Tuesday, February 7

NASA's budget disappoints

There's quite a lot of 'buzz' around on the internet at the moment about NASA's 2007 budget submission. The summary being that NASA's budget will be increased by only 1% over 2006 levels for 2007, to $16.792 billion. As we all know, if we were offered a 1% payrise, taking account of inflation that's effectively a cut in funding.

Why is this of interest to us, here in the UK ? Well, not withstanding the excellent work being done by ESA (with a budget of only $3 billion), most of our space and astronomy news, pictures etc are provided by NASA missions. If funding is effectively cut, then something has to go.

It looks like what is going to be hit is so-called 'space science' missions. This means the planetary missions, space based observatories etc, that we spend so much of our time at CAS meetings discussing, and reading about in our monthly astronomy magazines. 'Real' scientists are up in arms about this announcement.

Think of; Cassini at Saturn, the Hubble Space Telescope, the Mars Rovers, New Horizons on it's way to Pluto, Stardust, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Spitzer Space Telescope, Mars Global Surveyor, Chandra Space Telescope Deep Impact . . . The list goes on, right to the ageing Pioneer and Voyager probes which are still sending back useful data from the very edges of our solar system.

Although existing missions will continue to be supported, NASA is effectively putting the brakes on proposed new missions such as Terrestrial Planet Finder and missions to Jupiter's moon Europa. Late last year NASA's Dawn mission to the two largest asteroids Ceres and Vesta was shelved due to budget constraints. These missions are the next generation of 'Hubbles' and 'Cassinis'

The money will be going to prop up the aging Space Shuttle program and allow NASA to meet its commitment to complete the International Space Station. The shuttle programme has been a mixed success since it was first developed. Ironically the shuttle's greatest success is arguably the Hubble Servicing Missions, particularly the first 'Hubble repair mission' which fixed the optics on HST to allow it to become the amazing science and publicity instrument it is now. The good news is that the budget allows for one more servicing mission

Also receiving more money is preparation for a return to the moon, announced by George Bush in 2004. I think we are all looking forward to a long overdue return to the moon, but do we really want to do it at the expense (and excitement) of real science, now ?

I'm sure that NASA and other space agencies will continue to send probes to Mars, to continue the search for life. But, in my opinion, there's a lot more the solar system exploration than Mars, and at some point the public are going to get bored of yet more detailed photographs of the red planet. What is going to inspire future generations of astronomers and space scientists if there are no Voyagers, Vikings, Gallileos and Cassinis whilst they are growing up ? And more to the point, what are we going to discuss at CAS meetings ?

For more on this story check out the following;

Stuart's Opinion at Cumbrian Sky
Planetary Society's blog
BBC News article

More on the budget at the February CAS Meeting. In the meantime, why not post your comments here ?

Saturday, February 4

CAS website updated

I've recently published the latest update to our main website over at www.cockermouthastronomy.co.uk , go take a look.

Updates include the January meeting report, an updated news page with headlines from both CAS News and Cumbrian Sky in one place and a write up and photos from the Grasmere Festival of Stars.

There's still plenty to go onto the site. Don't forget I'm looking for your contributions especially;
  • Members astro photographs
  • Reviews of books / software / websites
  • Links to useful astronomy websites
  • Any 'How to . . .' type articles
  • Any other ideas you might have

Contact me chris@cockermouthastronomy.co.uk if you've got anything.

SuitSat Update

Well the radio transmitter equipped space suit SUITSAT was launched during last nights International Space Station EVA (space walk) .
Watching it on NASA TV as it drifted against the blackness of space and then with the Earth as a backdrop was very spooky; it almost felt like watching a person - reminiscent of the film 2001. More from NASA

Unfortunately the transmitter is struggling with low battery power due to the temperature, though NASA's news of it early demise are exagerated. I heard it faintly this morning on a hastily constructed antenna and others have since picked it up so there is hope for the project yet. You can watch the signal reports coming in here (I am G8DVW)

Update 5th Feb: You can listen to some recordings of the SUITSAT taken from aound the world on the website of US amateur AJ3U here

Take a free online astronomy course

Starting on Monday 6th February, the Planetary Society is offering a free online astronomy course over a 13 week period. The course is being given by Bruce Betts, Director of Projects for the Planetary Society.

A full syllabus and details of the course are available on the Planetary Society's website here.

The course promises to be an excellent introduction to many themes in astronomy, and is being broadcast on many cable TV channels in the USA. You can catch the programmes on the internet.

I've not seen any of the course material, but Bruce Betts makes a regular weekly appearance on Planetary Radio, and you could certainly say his segment, "What's Up", is entertaining.

So if you've missed out on Robin's local Astronomy course, this might be worth a look.

Debate over the 10th planet goes on . . . .

A recent announcement by a group of German astronomers has added further weight to the argument that 2003 UB313, the object found orbiting 3 times further from the sun than Pluto, should be officially called a planet.

Already dubbed 'the 10th planet' by many, UB313 was initially thought to be slightly larger than Pluto. Recent observations and calculation now put the object diameter at approximately 3,000km. Pluto is 'only' 2,600km in diameter. The picture below shows the relative sizes.

This new size estimate is based on a new assessment of the objects reflectivity at radio wavelengths. See this Universe Today article for more details. Also this website contains more details from the German team. There's also an excellent article "How big is 2003 UB313" on the Planetary Society's website which sumarises all recent studies.

One question that might occur to you is - "If we can discover over 160 planets around other stars, how come we've only just found the 10th planet in our own solar system?". It's a good question, and one we'll answer in our 'Extrasolar Planets Update' at our March CAS meeting.

Wednesday, February 1

Meeting Report - January 2006

Our January meeting last night was a great success with almost 20 members braving the cold, both outside and inside the hall!

Chris gave the usual round up of news, including NASA's Stardust and New Horizons missions both in the news recently. Also the discovery of a new extrasolar planet. Chris also gave an introduction to our two new websites.

Bill covered the latest happenings in the night sky including positions of the planets and the affect moon phases and position has on observing. Our next CAS observing session is set for the 3rd and 4th March, when the moon shouldn't cause a problem. Handouts were available showing the night sky for February. Of particular note is Saturn's close approach the M44 (The Beehive Cluster) in the early part of February. Jeremy was able to show us a recent image he had taken of this.

Following a short break, where members caught up on news over the Christmas period and looked through the latest astronomy magazines, Robin talked about our main topic for the evening - Adaptive Optics.

Robin explained how modern technology allows astronomers to compensate for the effect the Earth's atmosphere has on light from stars and other objects passing through it. Normally the atmosphere severely limits the resolution of ground based telescopes, which it why the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) is needed to produce such stunning images. However adaptive optics has allow the 'wobble' caused by the atmosphere to be compensated for, thus giving resolution almost comparable to HST over small areas of the sky.

Robin also showed us some of the work he had been doing recently, imaging and measuring the redshift of an object 12 billion light years away. All with relatively basic 'backyard' equipment. See Robin's website for details here.

Time was short at the end of the meeting so we didn't have time to finalise our programme for the rest of the year. Please send any suggestions for talk topics or events to chris@cockermouthastronomy.co.uk