Syracuse Astronomical Society President’s Message for July, 2008

A repost of the original at the Syracuse Astronomical Society website.

Greetings fellow astrophiles!

Final plans for our Summer Seminar are in the works, with that update to follow early in August. Meantime, with quite a few interesting astronomical stories appearing in notable media these past few weeks, it seems like as good a presentation order as any to start local and head way, way out.

“We soon realized the public is very good at finding weird things.”

Astronomy is one of the few scientific fields where so-called “amateurs” (and today’s good amateur would have been a world authority just 100 years ago) still make numerous significant contributions every year. While some undertake the task of observation with considerable equipment purchases and long nights of tracking objects and recording locations, some need only a web browser and a decent monitor to discover new phenomena.

The Galaxy Zoo ( is an online project established in mid-2007 that combines the mountains of available images of galaxies from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey with a web interface that lets users assist in the cataloguing of galaxy types (elliptical, spiral, mergers, other?). While the first round of results are in the process of being written up for publication, work continues at the Galaxy Zoo site, with the next focus being the identification of merging galaxies. As for the process of identification, it is nice to know (or, at least, have reported on their website) that the human brain is better at classifying galaxies than computer algorithms.

Click to go to

And how does one stumble upon this site while looking for message content? The answer is Hanny’s Voorwerp. The Astronomy Picture of the Day for June 25, 2008 contains an unusual voorwerp (that’s Dutch for “object”) below the galaxy IC 2497, both about 700 million light years away. While a current hypothesis holds that the voorwerp is a galaxy in close proximity to IC 2497 acting as a reflection nebula, the consensus is that this is a unique object that exemplifies how much odd stuff we have documented that no one’s yet had the time or resources to examine in any detail. The real kicker of this object? Hanny’s Voorwerp was discovered by one of the Galaxy Zoo members in the Netherlands (hence the “voorwerp” title).

So, with Syracuse fall and winter approaching (and, given our luck at viewing sessions so far this year, one might anticipate a very small number of good viewing nights), consider doing some good science indoors instead.

Hanny’s Voorwerp. From APOD, June 25 2008. Click for a larger view.

Another Good Reason To Stay Inside…

While all of these images are on the internet, it is always nice when someone takes the time to organize content into simple web scripts for viewing. It is even better when a major magazine hosts such a series of images, as it provides those not necessarily thinking about astronomical phenomena as part of their morning read an opportunity to think about yet another way they might be late to work the next day. This TIME magazine slideshow begins with photos from Tunguska on June 30, 1908, perhaps the most famous Earth-bound encounter with a celestial object in the 20th century (and an X-Files favorite topic). The additional images of meteors and impact craters seem more otherworldly than they actually are, with the close-crop views of Gosses Bluff and Arizona’s Meteor Crater more reminiscent of images from the Moon, where the lack of constant geological shifting freezes the lunar views, leaving other impacts to cause major changes to the geography.

Tunguska, June 30, 1908. Click HERE to go to the slideshow.

The hunt for Terran impact craters has even expanded into a full-blown hobby thanks to Google Earth, with users scouring satellite images of the entire planet for signs of past meteors impacts.

From “Wanna Take A Ride?” To A Possible “Take A Hike!”

A news item first pointed out by our own Mike Brady. The Arecibo Radio Observatory in Puerto Rico, established in 1963, made famous to many Americans as a backdrop for the beginning of the movie Contact and an episode of the X-Files, and made famous internationally as the original data collector for the SETI@home screensaver project, is facing a severe budget cut by the National Science Foundation. A 60% cut, from 10.5 to 4.0 million by 2011, would mean the closure of this facility as an academic hub of radio astronomy research provided that the extra $6 million cannot be obtained from other sources, which in this day and age could mean checks from individuals instead of corporate sponsorship (because finding the right paint for putting logos might be problematic).

The Arecibo Radio Observatory. Click HERE for more info.

I keep track of this story as part of my membership to the Planetary Society, which provides information and updates as part of their public-accessible website (they are also a major voice in the fight to keep Arecibo running for SETI@Home, Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) identification, and basic research).

They’d Prefer You Called Them “UFOs”

In yet another article that ties into this little X-Files theme (although I promise that the movie opening this weekend had nothing to do with the selection of stories), WIRED magazine features a story about an art exhibit by Trevor Paglen, astrophotographer extraordinaire (and that includes using astrophotography equipment for more terrestrial art exhibits). Using spy satellite data collected by Ted Molczan, himself featured in a WIRED magazine article in 2006, Paglen set out to take photos of the otherwise non-existent – 189 secret spy satellites. According to the story, “Paglen is trying to draw a metaphorical connection between modern government secrecy and the doctrine of the Catholic Church in Galileo‘s time,” where the lack of acknowledgment of their existence by authorities does nothing to temper the fact that small satellites are orbiting around a larger body (be that the Galilean moons around Jupiter or these spy satellites around the Earth).

This photo does not exist. By Trevor Paglen,

… and if you’re not much into government conspiracy and national security issues, they still make for some gorgeous satellite photos.

Deep Impact Looks Back

Taking one giant leap away from the planet, NASA‘s Deep Impact spacecraft has provided the still images for a most amazing movie – the transit of the Moon across the Earth. Deep Impact first made headlines as the spacecraft responsible for cracking open comet Tempel 1 on July 4th, 2005. This newest imagery set of the Earth and Moon has been combined by NASA researchers into a 15 minute-per-frame movie of our Moon transiting the Earth (specifically, passing over Africa with South Americans just beginning to wake up on May 29th of this year).

Deep Impact and the transit of the Moon. From NASA. Click HERE for more info and movies.

While the individual images would be enough with even a mild imagination, the combined series makes for 30 of the best seconds online.

Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, More Water on Mars

It’s becoming mundane! Well, almost. The Nature article that makes up the basis for this story (also from WIRED magazine) reports that Mars was once a far wetter place, with salty seas existing across the entire Martian surface early in its formation (only the first 700 million years, though). While the best Mars has offered us in hard evidence lately is the existence of water ice by the Mars Phoenix Lander, all of the many geological/mineral studies performed over the past few years have provided a very convincing picture of what ancient Mars must have been like before Mother Nature made the “big move” to Earth.

The Nili Fossae region of Mars. From Prof. John Mustard, Brown University. Click HERE for more info.

Jupitero The Magnificent

The great DissappearingReapprearing Little Red Spot Act by Jupiter‘s Great Red Spot at the beginning of July made for a great round of blogging and corrections as the Little Red Spot apparently made it through the Great Red Spot, greatly humbled but still present after its close encounter. A number of real-time blog postings between May 15th and July 8th reported that the Little Red Spot was completely devoured by the Great Red Spot. Only after the final image in the series was collected was it determined that some small deformed remnant of the Little Red Spot made it out the other side of the most famous feature of our largest planetary neighbor.

The Hubble view of the Red Spot event. From NASA and Click HERE for more info.

This event was made all the more impressive to amateur astronomers because the entire process occurred while Jupiter was in opposition, putting its best face to Terran observers. Google searches reveal a multitude of images, with the NASA Hubble Space Telescope providing the ultimate views of this most impressive magic show (and as for the size of the performers, note that the Great Red Spot at its narrowest is the same size of the entire planet Earth).

Scientists Scouring The Galaxy For A Stellar Chicken

Now taking a trip across the pond to report on a story about the contents of our entire Solar System, it has been determined after analysis of Voyager 1 and 2 data that our Solar System is egg-shaped. The determination of shape was made by comparing data from Voyager 1 and 2 as they passed through the heliopause, the edge of the magnetic bubble generated by our Sun that gets pushed upon by particles in the interstellar medium. The Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft, launched in different directions, passed through the heliopause boundary at distances of 8.7 and 7.8 billion miles from the Sun (respectively), a 10% difference in its shape that could only be accounted for by the heliopause being deformed from the perfect spherical shape one would expect in a stationary model of our Solar System and not the 250 km/sec speed of our Solar System’s motion in the Milky Way.

Artist rendering of the Solar system. From Click on the image for more info.

Come Together… Right Now… p=mv

Finally, in other events beyond our legislative control, our Milky Way galaxy (and a number of our nearby neighbors) is speeding towards… um… something. Something big. Something massive. something 250 millions light years away. Something pulling us toward it at 14 million miles per hour. This massive voorwerp, dubbed “The Great Attractor,” is taking the small suburb we call our Local Group of galaxies and the local metropolis known as the Virgo Cluster for a rapid ride towards an unknown destination, something that is believed to be at least 10 times more massive than all of the visible matter in the massive Virgo cluster. This invisible mass fires the debates about dark matter and dark energy as we continue to develop theories and make observations that enable us to better describe our universe and, hopefully, our place in it.

You are here. Our galactic neighborhood by infra-red imaging. From Thomas Jarrett, IPAC. Click HERE for more info.

This is one of those truly impressive examples of just how much we still have to learn about the universe around us. An impressive read and wikipedia entry I’d recommend anyone gravitate toward.

And finally…

We return to our own local group of medium sized cities with a photo of Lake Ontario in Oswego, NY by our own David Tibbitts, featuring our closest star and more water than you could shake a NASA lander at.

Sunset in Oswego by David Tibbitts. Click the image for a larger view.

Space is the place,
Damian Allis, Ph.D.

Links Used Above (Subject To Web Changes)…geocode_result&resnum=1&ct=title,29307,1818757,00.html…/space_advocacy/20080703.html…chews-up-and-spits-out-a-storm/…/scisolar103.xml

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