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Thursday, March 30

2006 CAS Programme

Below is the latest programme for 2006;

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CAS Committee news

At the moment we run CAS with a committee of volunteers comprising;
  • Bill McAlister
  • Robin Leadbeater
  • Caroline Pollard
  • Chris Darwin
  • Tony Terry and
  • Jeremy Hunt (who has recently agreed to join us)
At our last meeting we discussed the way forward for the society. Our conclusion was that there would be many benefits to organising more formally. This would allow us, for example, to apply for lottery funding for equipment etc.

We are not talking about big changes. Basically we need to have a constitution, formal accounts, and have a membership list.

At the moment we don't have a membership list, people just turn up to meetings and events and pay a small charge to cover room hire. That works well, but without a membership list, we don't know who are members are, we can't really keep in touch with everyone or lend equipment out etc.

So over the next couple of months you might see some slight changes, probably limited to someone asking you for some membership details, and a short Annual General Meeting at our May meeting.

Solar Eclipse

The weather in Cumbria certainly seemed to co-operate this time to allow observing of the eclipse. Unfortunately I was working. I've not heard any reports from CAS members (perhaps you could post a comment here is you saw it). I know the Eddington Astronomical Society had a very successful eclipse watch in Kendal. See Cumbrian Sky for a full report from Stuart.

There are lots of excellent photos on the SpaceWeather.com website here. Meanwhile the eclipse was photographed from space by the crew of the International Space Station . . .

Image Credit: NASA

Hopefully the weather was good where our eclipse chasers were. I looking forward to a full report at our April meeting.

Wednesday, March 29

CAS March Meeting Report

Our March meeting was not as well attended as usual, perhaps due in part to the poor weather and the absence of some 'regulars' chasing the solar eclipse ! Although the planned topic was astronomy software, Bill was called away on business at the last minute, thwarting his presentation for a second time.

Chris started the meeting with the usual round up of news items including; Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter successful arrival at Mars and first photos, delays to the Shuttle launch and updates on the Hayabusa probes finding at Itokawa. We also discussed the committee's thoughts on the future direction of the society, which will be the subject of a separate entry.

After a short break it was time for Chris to continue with a (hastily prepared) presentation on the use of astronomy software for educational purposes, showcasing some of the software on the free CD which was available. After the meeting members gathered round a map to search out possible locations for an observing site close to Cockermouth. There was plenty of suggestions (thanks to all who helped there !) , although there were no obvious candidates and a bit more work is required.

Friday, March 24

First Images from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

Although it will not start its real science work until later this year, scientists have got their first images from MRO's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera (HiRISE).

The HiRISE team eagerly views the first images. The image below is a wide area image of the surface. . . .

and this image is the close up of the area highlighted by the small square above. Bear in mind that this image was taken at a distance approximately 10 times as far away from Mars as the final orbit will be.

All images : NASA [click images for larger version]

Thursday, March 23

March CAS Meeting

Don't forget our next meeting next Tuesday 28th March. As usual we will meet at St Joseph's Church Hall, Cockermouth 7.30pm start.

This month Bill will again attempt to give his astronomy software talk, as last months attempt was postponed due to good weather ! As well as demonstrating various types of software, CDs will be available (free of charge) to save you downloading the software yourself.

Just one of the many software packages Bill will be showing us.

We will, of course, also have all the latest space and astronomy news and details of what to look for in the night sky next month.

Hope to see as many of you as possible there.

March 24th / 25th Observing Event - CANCELLED

This weeknd's observing weekend is no longer going ahead.

Why? Well we came to the conclusion that our current observing site at Caldbeck is just too far away for most people to make the trip, and certainly not suitable for a Messier Marathon. At our Committee meeting last night we decided it would be better to put our efforts into finding a suitable location closer to Cockermouth before holding any further observing evenings.

Regular observing evenings are certainly the right thing to do, we just need to make them accessible to more people, and hopefully increase the number of people taking part. So, as always, we look forward to your suggestions. We will attempt to get a new location sorted out for our next scheduled observing evening at the end of April.

Saturday, March 18

Skybeam pollutes local skies

Last night I took advantage of a clear spell and started setting up to make some measurements on a star I have been monitoring as part of a British Astronomical Association observing campaign in support of professional astronomers. I was surprised to see dancing beams of blue light shooting high above the usual horizon hugging skyglow from the direction of Cockermouth.

Was this an unexpected aurora? Unfortunately not. It was a "Skybeam" the latest threat to our rapidly disappearing natural phenomenon, the stary sky. Keen to track down the source, I jumped into my car and set off in hot pursuit, but like the proverbial rainbows end, it proved elusive, seeming just as far away no matter how far I drove. I eventually tracked it down some 15 miles! away from my home and several miles beyond Cockermouth. Fortunately it turned out to be a temporary phenomenon to celebrate a 40th Birthday. Not wanting to appear a party pooper, I briefly explained the problems caused light pollution and made my exit, but it brought home to me how destructive of the night sky these devices are.

The BAA Campign for Dark Skies have successfully achieved the switching off of similar permanent beams at Guilford, Milton Keynes and Stockport under planning laws, but Barnsely town council is now seeking to legitimise such pollution as art and a "symbol of a 21st century market town" These temporary beams, should they become the latest craze could pose an even more serious threat to our precious night sky environment.

The irony is that the observations I was attempting to make were of a natural Skybeam produced by a Blazar powered by a pair of black holes hundreds of millions of light years away, in whose beam the earth is currently caught.

CAS Messier "Mini Marathon"

Later this month at our observing session (24th or 25th March) we will be attempting a "mini Messier marathon", weather permitting of course.

A Messier marathon is a challenge often undertaken by astronomy societies around the world at this time of year. It is an attempt to see all 109 Messier objects in one night. Perhaps a little background is in order;

What are the Messier objects ? - Charles Messier was an 18th century French astronomer, who was particularly interested in discovering new comets. During his search of comets he was often frustrated by many other faint fuzzy objects which looked like comets but weren't. So he compiled a list of all these object to avoid confusion. Eventually the list grew to 109 objects consisting of; galaxies, star clusters and nebulae. Over the years the Messier Catalogue, as it is know, has become a favourite with amateur astronomers the world over.

Why a marathon at this time of year ? - The Messier Objects are spread throughout the sky. At any particular time of the year the sun will be in a certain part of the sky, and we can't see the stars in that part of the sky because it is daylight ! In March, the sun is in an area of sky where there are no Messier objects, therefore it is possible to see all the objects in one night, only during this period.
However, as we are located further north than the ideal location it is not possible to see all 109 objects from Cockermouth. Also, given that none of us have tried 'the marathon' before it would be too much to try the full course.

We'll try a 'mini marathon'. basically we'll set up and see how many objects we can see during the night. Night Sky magazine [www.nightskymag.com] has a mini Messier Marathon article in their current issue, which details the easiest 25 objects to find for beginners. I think, weather permitting, we can do better than that.

What will I need ? - Bring a telescope or binoculars if you have them. If not just turn up anyway, we have binoculars you can borrow, and there will hopefully be plenty of telescopes as well. You need to bring warm clothing, and something to eat and drink. If you are planning on staying all night a deck chair or similar will be useful for resting, and grabbing a quick nap.

Where are we meeting ? - Good question ! We usually meet at Calbeck (map here and directions here). However, that's a long way to travel, so we may be better using a site closer to Cockermouth, giving people the opportunity to go home for a rest if needed. We need to identify a suitable site pretty quickly to do that, as yet I've had no suggestions.

Check back later in the week for confirmation of our location.

Wednesday, March 15

Stardust analysis reveals surprising results

Only two months since they were returned to Earth onboard NASA's Stardust probe, particles from Comet Wild-2 are revealing some surprising results. Scientists analysing the particles have found minerals which only form at temperatures over 1000 degrees C. Comets form in the outer reaches of the solar system far from the Sun, or any other heat source. So how did these minerals find their way into comets ?

Impact tracks of particles in the aeorgel. [Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech / University of Washington]

At the moment there are two leading theories. In the first hot particles are formed near the young sun and blasted into the outer solar system in 'bipolar jets' also referred to as 'X wind'. These are jet of material expelled from the poles of forming stars along the axis on which the star is spinning. The second theory is that these minerals did not form near our sun at all, they formed in or near other stars and found their way into the outer reaches of our solar system as comets were being formed.

It's clear that there is much more to learn about the origin of comets and our solar system. Remember analysis of this material is still in its early stages, the material has literally on been on Earth for two months.

If you want more details on this and other Stardust results check out Emily Lakdawalla's reports from the Luna and Planetary Science Conference at the Planetary Society's blog.

Tuesday, March 14

Modern Astronomy Evening Class on Show

Keswick Adult Education Centre will be holding its Annual Exhibition next Saturday 18th March from 10am to 2pm in the Friends Meeting House Keswick (Opposite Booths)

I will be manning a "Modern Astronomy" stand, handing out flyers and answering questions about the evening class which I plan to run again next year, showing some of the images taken during the course using the Bradford Robotic Telescope, demonstrating my own telescope running under computer control and of course promoting CAS!

Why not pop in and have a chat if you are around and please pass the word to anyone you think might be interested.

Google Mars

So you've Googled Earth, the Moon and your local area. Now try Google Mars. Released yesterday, this latest site from the internet search giant, allows you to 'surf' Mars and find sites of interest, such as Mars landers, using the same interface as you may have used in Google Maps to find local facilities in your area.

A nice feature is the ability to switch between an elevation map (generated from Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter data), visible or infrared views. Unfortunately the highest resolution images from Mars Express are not used, but there are some higher resolution pictures of landing sites etc.

Sunday, March 12

Concerned about Light Pollution? - Join the Star-Hunting Party March 22 –29

You are invited to participate in a worldwide campaign to observe and record the magnitude of visible stars as a means of measuring light pollution in a given location. Although mainly aimed at students and families, anyone can join in. See the GLOBE at Night website for more information and post your results on their website.

If you also copy me with your results, including your location (You can find your lat long on the Multimap website, just centre your location on the map and read off your location on the map information) I will generate a local light pollution map for publication on the CAS website.

Note the dates include our dark site observing session on 24/25th March so why not come along and check how dark the site is.

Friday, March 10

MRO Safely in Mars Orbit

Live coverage of the MRO Mars Orbit Insertion on NASA TV has just confirmed that the space probe has safely made it into orbit around the red planet. The mission also got significant coverage on BBC's Ten O'clock News at the same time !

Now we just have to wait around six months for the aerobraking phase of the mission before the probe is in a suitable orbit for science missions to begin.

News Roundup . . .

I've not had much time over the last week or so to keep on top of news, so here's a quick roundup of what's been going on. Most items have been covered more than adequately elsewhere, so I'll just provide some quick links;

Sir Patrick Moore in hospital - Sir Patrick has been in hospital this week to have a pacemaker fitted. Chris Lintott's blog and Cumbrian Sky . BBC News report Sir Patrick is "doing well".

Jupiter's other red spot - One of the smaller storms on Jupiter is getting bigger and redder, forming other red spot. It is getting big enough now to see in (large) amateur 'scopes. Universe Today article

Stuart's Moonwatching - Over at Cumbrian Sky Stuart has been trying out some simple photography of the moon using a digital camera and telescope, with some pretty stunning results.

Probe to crash into the Moon - Scientists will deliberately crash ESA Smart1 probe into the Moon later this year. Check out the details on Cumbrian Sky.

Mars Express photographs the cliffs of Olympus Mons - ESA's Mars Express mission has captured some spectacular images on the cliffs at the base of Olympus Mons on Mars. The cliffs in this image are up to 6km high !

Image Credit:ESA

MRO to enter Mars orbit today

Today is the day NASA's latest Mars probe Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), is due to enter orbit around Mars. Assuming all goes to plan. Check back later for more news.

Update 16:50PM: I've just found the timings from the MRO 'orbit insertion' here. Things don't really start happening until later this evening, the earliest we'll know if all has gone to plan is 2216hrs. You can watch proceedings on NASA TV.

Wednesday, March 8

Enceladus hits the headlines

Saturn's tiny moon Enceladus (remember the 'tiger stripes' ?) has hit the headlines today with news that scientists have potentially discovered liquid water on the satellite.

We've heard a lot about Endeladus over the last few months, with confirmation that the moon of Saturn is 'active' and spewing out clouds of water vapour into Saturn's E ring. Scientists now believe that the mechanism for producing these eruptions may be liquid water just below the surface of the moon. This is exciting news because where there is liquid water, thoughts will turn to the potential for life.

Image Credit: NASA Images showing the plumes near the south pole of Enceladus.

However, let's not get too excited. We knew about the active 'geysers' months ago, and today's press release (timed to coincide with articles published in the magazine Science) only talk about 'potential liquid water' on Enceladus.

While we are on the subject of Enceladus, one of the surprises of the Cassini mission it has to be said, here is a new picture from Cassini of the moon crossing in front of Saturn. It reminds me of the classic "Io in front of Jupiter image" from Galileo

Image Credit: NASA

More details on the 'water on Enceladus' story on these websites;

Observing Night Report

Our recent Observing Night was not too successful, it has to be said. Only Robin made it up to a cold and snowy Caldbeck on Friday night to enjoy the clear skies. I made it on Saturday, only to be greeted by total cloud cover (it had been clear in Cockermouth !).

At least we have a second attempt this month on the 24th or 25th March. So reserve those nights now.

I've also been wondering if Caldbeck is a bit too far for a 'routine' observing site. Perhaps we should consider something a bit closer. Our ideal observing site should have;
  • dark skies
  • Low horizon in most directions
  • parking for half a dozen or so car, with good access to somewhere to set up telescopes
  • be far enough from a main road to avoid headlights spoiling observing.

If you know any likely sites please let s know. Email by the usual address (chris@cockermouthastronomy.co.uk) or leave a comment on the post. Just click the '0 comments' link below, and follow the instructions.

Saturday, March 4

Observing Tonight

The sky looks reasonably clear, so I think I'll be heading up to Caldbeck tonight. Well done to Robin who was the only one to brave the elements last night for an hour or so.

He also got up early this morning to image the new Comet Pojmansky in the eastern sky. Check up Robins website here, to see his image and spectrum.

Thursday, March 2

CAS Observing Night - 3rd March 2006

Our next observing event will be held on Friday 3rd March 2006 (that's tomorrow) if the weather is clear (with Saturday 4th March being our backup date). We will meet at our Calbeck observing site (see Directions on our main site), between 2015hrs and 2045hrs, to set up scopes etc.

This month we will have two chances at observing sessions, as our following event is scheduled for 24th or 25th March, just three weeks later. Put both dates in your diary.

The dates are scheduled to fall on the Friday before the new moon, to give us the best chance of dark skies. We may however want to schedule a 'moon watch' later in the year.

Wednesday, March 1

February 2006 Meeting Report

Our February meeting coincided with an excellent clear night (the first time that has happened in years!). So, keen to make the best of the opportunity, we closed our meeting early and headed over to Memorial Gardens for an impromptu observing session.

Chris gave a quick news update, including the latest from Cassini and the Mars Rovers, Pluto's new moons, the NASA budget and a look ahead to our **two** March observing evenings.

Bill gave a very brief overview of astronomy software (the full presentation to be given at our March meeting). Free CDs with over 600MB of astronomy freeware and shareware were available for members to take away.

Over in memorial gardens Robin had set up is telescope, and coupled with half a dozen pairs of binoculars we took advantage of some excellent skies.

Through binoculars open clusters were the order of the day, with at least ten being visible; M34, M35, M36, M37, M38, M42, M44, and the 'Double Cluster'. Robin's 'goto' scope picked out a number of objects including Mars and Saturn, the Orion nebula, the crab nebula and several galaxies.

We just need that sort of weather on Friday night for our Caldbeck observing session.