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Friday, September 29

UK lead team finds new exoplanets

As Robin mentioned on Tuesday night, an international team of astronomer lead by the UK have recently discovered two new extrasolar planets. The project is called superWASP, WASP being "wide angle search for planets". The instruments used are essentially a collections of camera lenses, mounted on a telescope mount. This allows the team to image a very wide area of the sky each night. The data is stored, and then analyzed for changes in the brightness of individual stars. Instruments like the one shown below have a field of view 2000 times greater than a 'normal' telescope.

Image Credit: SuperWASP project. Image shows one of the imaging instruments comprising 8 cameras

The planets are discovered using the transit method, detecting the drop in brightness as a planet passes in front of its star, as seen from Earth. The existence of the planets was then confirmed by a French instrument called Shopie, using the doppler spectroscopy method to detect the 'wobble' in the parent star caused by the planet.

The planets discovered orbit very close to there stars and are 'hot jupiter'. The planets have been named Wasp-1b and Wasp-2b, and are thought to be among the hottest planets yet found with temperatures around 1,800C.

Wednesday, September 27

Opportunity really is there now!

Thanks to Stuart for keeping an eye on this for us. Opportunity is now returning some real images of Victoria crater, and it looks really impressive.

Image Credit: NASA (click image to enlarge)

The rover took this image from a distance of about 6m from the edge of the crater. By the end of today, it should be right at the edge. Check out the full NASA description.

September Meeting Report

Last night's CAS meeting was a great success, and it was great to see a few new faces. Chris gave a news round up covering subjects as diverse as the Smart 1 impact on the moon, the Atlantis Shuttle mission, new planets in other solar systems and new names in ours, space tourism . . . the list goes on.

We then had a short break with, for the first time, tea, coffee and biscuits. Thanks to Caroline for organizing that. The availability of refreshments did seem to encourage a bit more discussion among members , which was good to see.

After the break Jeremy Hunt gave us an excellent talk on "an introduction to astrophotography". This was an excellent talk covering the basics, illustrated by Jeremy's excellent photographs and providing some useful tips along the way. I'm sure there was something for everyone.

Links from the meeting.

We talked about observing the ISS from Cumbria. At the moment the ISS makes early morning passes over Cumbria at around 0500h - 0630h each morning. For specific timings head over the www.heavens-above.com or if you live in Cockermouth this link has the location already set.

For more up to date images on Mars rover Opportunity approaching Victoria crater keep an eye on Stuart's blog Cumbrian Sky where he's keeping a very close eye on progress.

Our October meeting is dedicated to telescopes and equipment. At the meeting we hope to have a range of telescopes on display, and will be covering the basics of choosing and using telescopes. Ideal if you're thinking of buying a telescope for Christmas.

Tuesday, September 26

Betelgeuse faintest for over 60 years?

For night owls and early risers, the winter constellation of Orion is already prominent in the south east. Followers of the brightness variations of Betelgeuse may have noticed that the famous pulsating red supergiant star (left shoulder of Orion), is somewhat dimmer than usual. Results logged with the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) confirm that indeed Betelgeuse is currently around half a magnitude fainter on average than last season and may be the dimmest it has been since at least the 1940s
Read more about this fascinating star on the AAVSO website here.

Saturday, September 23

CAS Observing Evening Report

A select band of just four met at Big Wood last night for our September observing session. Luckily the weather co-operated and although things looked patchy as we were setting up scopes the sky cleared later on. For once it was quite warm all evening as well, although that wont last for our future meetings I'm sure!

We had some excellent views of some of the favourite deep-sky objects including; the Andromeda Galaxy, the Dumbell Nebula, the Double Cluster, the Whirlpool Galaxy, and several globular and open clusters. Most of the time was spent looking at the fantastic view through Robin's Moonfish ultra-wide angle eyepiece. It was also a good opportunity for me to try out my Telrad finder.

An excellent night's observing and some great conversation made it a very worthwhile night. Hopefully we can persuade a few more people to come along next time.

Friday, September 22

Observing Session Tonight

It looks as if the sky is clearing from the west this evening, so we may be lucky tonight. Definitely worth a try, so please come along about 8.45 ish. Hope to see you there.


Wednesday, September 20

September CAS Observing Session

Our monthly observing sessions restart again this month, weather permitting. The last few have been cancelled due to lack of a suitable observing site. Our last site at Calbeck was really too far for most people to travel.

After much deliberation we have decided on a site much closer to Cockermouth at Big Wood. That's about 10 mins drive from the centre of Cockermouth. For map of how to get there follow this link.

The observing session is planned for the 22nd or 23rd of September. That means that if it's clear on the 22nd (this Friday night) we'll meet up at the site. If it's cloudy, we'll try again on Saturday night. If it's cloudy again we give up for the month and try again next month! For more details on observing sessions check out this Frequently Asked Questions post.

These observing sessions are a great opportunity to meet other CAS members, discuss and try out equipment and learn from more experienced members. You don't need any fancy equipment to take part, ust bring what you've got; telescope, binoculars, your eyes, whatever.

Keep an eye on the blog on Friday, I'll try an post something if the session is on. If you here nothing, and it looks clear, just turn up. I look forward to seeing you there.

The observant among you will have noticed I haven't mentioned a time to meet. Lets say arrive between 8.45pm and about 9.15pm. It should be reasonably dark by then. - Chris.

Tuesday, September 19

Giant extrasolar planet puzzles astronomers

Image Credit: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Scientist are puzzled by the latest extrasolar planet discovery. The is planet named HAT-P-1, after the telescope system which discovered it using the transit technique. That means it was discovered by detecting the dimming of it's parent star as the planet passes in front of the star blocking out some of the light. This technique allows the diameter of the planet to be measured as well as its mass. Using that information the planet's density can be calculated.

This particular planet has a radius of 1.38 times that of Jupiter, the largest planet discovered to date. However, it only has a mass of half Jupiter's, giving it a very low density. It's density is about half that of water, similar to cork ! This gives scientists a problem in explaining how the planet formed, as current models would require a much denser body to have enough gravity to grow to the observed size.

For an excellent insight into the latest theories of planetary formation, and extrasolar planet discoveries check out October's issue of Astronomy magazine, which is an extrasolar planet special issue.

Monday, September 18

A busy week at the International Space Station

It's busy up at the International Space Station at the moment. The Shuttle Atlantis has just undocked from the space station after a very succesful mission to install new solar panels on the station. The shuttle is due to land on Wednesday this week.

Meanwhile a russian Soyuz spacecraft lifted off this morning from Kazakstan, carrying new crew members. Among them is Anousheh Ansari, the world's first female space tourist. Anousheh has a keen interest in spaceflight, and was one of the people involved in the Ansari X-prize set up to encourage commerical space flight. During here trip to the ISS she will be writing a blog, which you can find here.

ISS is well placed for viewing from Cumbria at the moment. You can get details of the latest passes one the Heaven's Above website. The addition of extra solar panels should make the station even brighter and easy to see.

Thursday, September 14

Dwarf planet 2003 UB313 gets an official name

The Dwarf Planet 2003 UB313 (you know, the one that's bigger than Pluto) now has an official name, and it's not Xena. The IAU, which names solar system bodies, as well as demoting planets, has given it the name Eris. It has been named after the Greek goddess of discord and strife. That's very appropriate given the strife caused since it's discovery which eventually resulted in a change of the definition of a planet, and Pluto's ultimate demotion to dwarf planet status!

More details at the Bad Astronomy Blog .

Wednesday, September 13

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter reaches final orbit

Image Credit: NASA

After about six months of 'aerobraking' NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) as finally reached its science orbit. This means that we should soon start to see some of the high resolutions images of the surface of Mars promised by the HiRise instrument. This is the most powerful imaging system sent to any planet.

Wednesday, September 6

Shuttle Launch Postponed

The launch of the space shuttle Atlantis has again been postponed. This time due to a malfunction of one of the shuttle's three fuel cells during a pre-flight check. NASA will probably try again tomorrow. See the BBC News article here .

Shuttle Crew ready for launch

Image Credit: NASA

The crew of the shuttle Atlantis are preparing for launch today. This mission will visit the International Space Station, and for the first time in over 4 years actualy add components to the space station. The main objective will be to add a new array of solar panels which will double the station's electricity generation capacity.

The launch is scheduled for 16:29 hrs GMT this afternoon. You should be able to catch the launch on NASA TV, and probably BBC News 24 TV channel.

Tuesday, September 5

Extrasolar Planet Update

While the debate continues to rage about how many planets there are in our own solar system, it is worth remembering that as of August 2006 there are well over 200 planets known to exist around other stars. When I did a talk at CAS in May 2006 that number was nearer 160! Each month more extrasolar planets, or exoplanets, are added to the list.

One of the most recently confirmed planets orbits the star beta gemini, that's the naked eye star Pollux to you and I. One of the Gemini 'twins', Castor and Pollux, the star is well known to many amateurs and is well placed in the winter sky. Next time you look at the constellation you can contemplate the fact that there are planets up there !

The planet has a mass of 2.5 times that of Jupiter and orbits at a distance of 1.64 AU from Pollux. Of course that may not be the only planet to orbit Pollux. The techniques currently used for detecting extrasolar planets are best at detecting larger planets, in close orbit around their stars. Hence the majority of planets we know about are so called 'Hot Jupiters'. As techniques improve smaller and smaller planets will be discovered, with the ultimate goal being to find Earth sized planets around other stars.

The closest star known to have a planet is Epsilon Eridani. It is the third closest naked eye star to our sun, at a distance of 10.5 light years. In 1998 a dust disk was discovered around the star. Within about 35 AU of the star there was no dust, indicating the possible presence of a planetary system. In 2000 a planet Epsilon Eridani B was announced. This is a 0.8 Jupiter mass object orbiting about 3 AU from the star. A further planet Epsilon Eridani C has also been proposed, but as yet remains unconfirmed. Because of its close proximity Epsilon Eridani will be one of the first stars tobe investigated by the next generation of extrasolar planet missions, including NASA's SIM PlanetQuest , which should be able to detect any Earth mass planets orbiting the star.

The Extrasolar Planet Encyclopedia is the place to go to keep tabs on all the known extrasolar planets. However it is not the most graphical of sites, if you want a more visually appealing site, with images and artistic impressions of some of these planets, check out Extrasolar Visions. Extrasolar visions even provides a view of the night sky from the planet in question. There is also plenty of information on the New Worlds Atlas , part of NASA's PlanetQuest site. PlanetQuest also has details of some of the upcoming missions to improve our knowledge of other planetary systems as well as a round up of the surprisingly large number of current exoplanet studies.

There's also an excellent summary of the various methods of detection, including the pros and cons, at the Planetary Society website. For information on the nearest stars to Sol and potential planetary systems check out Solstation .

Many thanks to the Eddington Astronomical Society for inviting me to talk at their meeting last night. I really enjoyed the evening. Hopefully this post will clear up some of the questions from the meeting and provide some follow up links.

Saturday, September 2

CAS Website Update - Your comments needed

I've not done many updates to the CAS website over the past few months, but I feel it is time to give it a bit of an update.

I'm looking for some feedback on what needs updating from you. I've got a reasonable amount of information on what the popular pages are and what is not used quite so much. You can expect some of the stuff to disappear. What would you like to see more of ? What doesn't work quite as you think it should ? What could you contribute?

To start you off, here are a few of my thoughts;

  • Update meeting reports to bring up to date
  • Change the links sections, add more relevent links
  • Add more reviews of websites, books, equipment etc
  • Details of our new observing sites

Let me have any comments as soon as possible.

Friday, September 1

CAS Observing Evenings - FAQ

When do they take place?

Observing evenings are held every month during the 'dark months'. That means we don't bother meeting during the summer when it doesn't get dark until very late. The evenings are planned for two nights in the diary, however we only meet on one of them.

In order to give us the best chance of observing under a clear sky we aim to meet on the first date, but if it's cloudy we meet on the following night.

The dates of the sessions are in the CAS Programme and are generally planned around the weekend before the new moon. This gives us the best chance of observing under dark skies without the moon causing a distraction.

Where do they take place?

At the moment our observing nights are at the entrance to Big Wood, near Higham. That about a 10 minute drive from the centre of Cockermouth. You can find a map and directions here .

Do I need to have a telescope to come to an observing evening?

No. We always stress that you don't need a telescope to look at the night sky. Our aim is that observing evenings are a social event and a chance for people to discuss astronomy and learn from each other. If you haven't got a telescope there will be plenty of people who have got one and will be only too happy to show you.

Please ask before you touch someone else's telescope. Set ups can be different for each scope, and someone may be in the middle of taking a photograph or something, even if it looks as if no-one is using the scope.

If you do have a telescope, but haven't had much success using it, don't be afraid to bring it along. You'd be surprised how many people struggle to find objects in their new telescope, you are not alone. Bring it along and someone will be happy to give you advice on setting it up, and finding your way around with it.

What equipment do I need to bring ?

The main essentials are warm clothing and perhaps a warm drink and something to eat. No matter how warm it may have been during the day and what the weather forecast says, if you are stood under a clear dark sky for several hours it will be COLD ! We don't want any hyperthermia cases on our hands.

It will be dark, so you may be tempted to bring a torch. If you do, please make sure it gives out a red light. It takes about 20-30 mins for the human eye to become 'dark adapted' for optimum viewing. A white light will cause you (and others) to lose that dark adaption. Using a red light avoids that, while allowing you to avoid obstacles and read star charts etc. You can buy special red light torches, but just cover a standard torch with some red plastic and tape it on to get the same effect.

How long will observing sessions last ?

That all depends on the weather, and perhaps most importantly how cold it is ! Normally people start to drift away around 11pm and only a few hardy souls make it past midnight. On a particularly clear night with plenty to see things may carry on into the small hours, but don't feel obliged to stay to the end if you'd rather be in bed.

How do I know if the session is on or not ?

Generally if it's completely cloudy then the session will not be on. Check the CAS News blog for an update on the evening. Or just turn up and see if anyone's there!

Am a complete beginner. What do I need to know before I come along?

There is no 'required level'. There will always be more experienced people that you can learn from, and you'll probably know more than you think anyway. It really is just a case of turning up, introducing yourself, and enjoying the view.

Etiquette for observing evenings

We don't have strict rules for observing sessions and keep things very informal. However a few common sense points of etiquette will help things run smoothly;

  • Ask before you use someone someone else's telescope.
  • Don't shine bright lights around where people are observing.
  • If you are arriving late or leaving early, try to avoid car headlight beams shining where people are observing.
Safety tips

Astronomy is not a dangerous sport, but there are a few things to remember;
  • It will be dark at the site and there will be plenty of things to trip over; telescope tripods, cables, storage boxes, carrying cases etc. Take care to avoid obstacles and try and leave space between telescope set ups if you can.
  • It will be cold. Make sure you dress appropriately.
  • If you unsure about anything, just ask. There are plenty of people there to help.

Getting up to speed with cosmology

If you are interested, but perhaps a little confused about cosmology then it might be worth checking out the September issue of Astronomy magazine. A wide range of subjects including gravity waves, particle physics, and dark energy are covered in a number of articles. All in all a good introduction to the subject. Also look out for a special edition called COSMOS due out sometime in October.