Syracuse Astronomical Society President’s Message For September, 2008

A repost of the original at the Syracuse Astronomical Society website. And official blog post #100 for

Greetings fellow astrophiles! We’ll get right to the news…

Summer Seminar 2008 Recap

We managed two beautiful nights this past August 22/23, which was a feat in itself given the limited number of good evenings we’ve had for viewing this year. The usual day-long festivities of past Summer Seminars were collapsed into two evenings of lectures by noted author and Baltimore Woods astro-organizer Bob Piekiel. Perhaps best known (certainly how I knew of him) for his beyond-comprehensive history of a scope-making giant, “Celestron, The Early Years“, the focus of his two lectures was “Testing and Evaluating the Optics of Schmidt-Cassegrain Telescopes,” also the subject of his new, very recently published book (those in attendance who bought copies had the foreword pasted into place, as these books really were “hot off the press”). With nearly 300 lbs. worth of gear brought into the Observatory, Bob covered a number of tests used to evaluate the quality of scope mirrors, doing so with the help of his own projector system to give everyone in the room a view down the eyepiece. We were also thrilled to host members of CNY-SPARC on Friday night and were pleased that the skies held up for a few hours of near-perfect naked eye viewing.

Bob Piekiel hard at play…

The Saturday program became a hands on for attendees, with Bob performing the same tests on the scopes of Mike Brady, Jeff Funk, and my own “Stu Special,” which will receive its own little article in the near future. We’ll have a copy of both the Celestron ebook and Bob’s new SCT book for perusing at Darling Hill. For those of you interested in purchasing your own copy (two great gifts for when the skies cloud over), you can get them directly from Bob at

SDSS 1: “Cosmic Haul” Reminds That “Data” Is Plural, After All

The BBC Sky at Night featured a short article on the recent identification of 50 new objects in the outer reaches of our Solar System, a number that will no doubt grow tremendously as more of the same data are analyzed and more powerful telescopes are pointed to the heavens. Of specific interest is the discovery of the aptly-named 2006 SQ372, an object that may be an old Oort Cloud resident but is now in an eccentric orbit that has it at about the distance of Neptune but will, at its maximum, distance itself from the Sun 75 times beyond its current 2 billion mile position.

2006 SQ372 (red ring not included). See article for more info.

The discoveries of these new objects demonstrate the power of recycling. The data used for these findings come from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and were part of a survey of supernovae that finds the telescopes and cameras pointed at the same strip of sky every three days. Instead of looking for new pinpoints of light in distant galaxies, the Solar System researchers simply performed image overlays to look for before-and-after shifts in the position of objects that existed in both images. With Stripe 82 successfully analyzed (the origin of these first discoveries), researchers can continue to work backwards and forwards, with all of us looking forward to the identification of new objects in our own backyard.

SDSS 2: Do Dwarf Galaxies Stick To The Roof Of Your Mouth?

In an odd twist, it seems that the Milky Way has quite an appetite. A second study from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey has revealed that the outer galaxy contains “streams” of stars that originate from satellite galaxies that were torn apart but still remain connected through their motions. In short, ribbons of stars from entire dwarf galaxies are moving within the outer halo of the Milky Way, gravitationally bound to the galaxy center. Using the Sloan data, researchers have been able to identify 14 such distinct ribbons of stars by observing the motions of each. Further, this same data was used to identify 14 dwarf Milky Way companions that remain intact within the dark matter halo of the Milky Way.

A model of the Milky Way. By. K. Johnston, J. Bullock. See article for more info.

The separation of these 14 ribbons is quite a mess of correlated motion and rigorous tracking of untold numbers of stars, but understanding the origins and results are straightforward here on Earth. Those that know of the American composer Charles Ives know that a major inspiration for his compositional approach came from hearing two marching bands playing different tunes simultaneously. In effect, the 14 ribbons of stars are the marching bands playing distinct songs in Ives’ parade, with gravitational forces playing the roles of the drum majors directing the bands along their paths. As long as you know the different songs (and, thanks to Newton and Einstein, every good physicist can hum along to those tunes), you can work back and identify the bands. While these bands are playing too far away for us to observe even in the 16″ Cave, it is worth noting that our Milky Way plays host to an increasingly more complex arrangement than we’re capable of hearing, although our speakers are improving all the time.

We’re Unique, Just Like All The Rest Of Them

It appears as though Extra-Solar Systems may be common, but our particular arrangement may be a lot harder to come by. A computational study predicts that our Solar System is the result of a delicate balance of initial stellar disk mass (how much matter the Solar System had to work with) and viscosity (a measure of the primordial “soupiness” of this gaseous disk of matter). Using computationally demanding simulations (as a computational chemist, I can attest to how long one has to wait to have an answer show up on a computer screen) and available data on the 250 identified planetary systems (including our own, of course), researchers identified that the wrong combinations of mass and viscosity can lead to no planets forming (low mass, high viscosity) or planets forming quickly and falling towards the center of the disk (high mass and low viscosity. Note the number of systems discovered with massive planets sitting quite close to their associated stars), while the right combinations can yield systems just like our own (warm porridge and large spoons).

Who are the planets in your neighborhood?

As equipment improves and we’re capable of identifying ever-smaller planets around reasonable stars, we’ll begin to test the accuracy of the theoretical models. When presenting the results of theoretical work (including my own), I often find myself quoting the great one, Han Solo. “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.”

I’ll Take A Shallow Pothole Any Day

From Most debris in space from old missions, damaged satellites, and stalled UFOs scoot around the Earth at a non-trivial 17,500 miles/hour. The world’s astronauts (and our space-enthusiast tax dollars) find no small amount of comfort in knowing that simple equations provide very accurate predictions of the motions of this debris. But what do you do when that debris is shooting straight at you? Crew members of the International Space Station opted to err on the side of caution and used booster rockets to move the ISS clearly out of the path of a piece of the Russian Cosmos-2421 surveillance satellite that was blown up earlier in 2008.

The International Space Station (from above). See article for more info.

This relocation of the ISS is noteworthy because, well, they did move their house to avoid the baseball from the kids next door and, despite all the green-friendly efforts we make here on Earth to cut fuel usage, this ISS motion was a “wasteful” endeavor. While the ISS uses rockets to move itself away from the planet on a regular basis (because of drag from the far, far upper atmosphere that causes the station to fall closer to Earth by several hundred feet every day), this move pushed the station closer to Earth (because it was already at its maximum preferred distance). Interestingly, Russians deny the existence of the debris (well, the satellite), while the ISS crew has had to keep track of quite the messy debris field.

When crossing the street, look both ways. Then, look up.

Clash Of The Titaniums (And Assorted Elements)

While a number of us enjoyed the Perseid meteor shower from the comfort of the Darling Hill Observatory, two amateur astronomers set their sights (and their scopes) on the Moon to watch for visible explosions resulting from impacts. This article from NASA reports on astronomers taking images of flashes of light on the Moon using reasonable scopes, recording equipment, and LunarScan, a freely available program for detecting lunar explosions. Anyone pointing a scope of any kind at the Moon knows just how hard the lunar surface has been hit in its 4.5-or-so billion year history (our own surface would look much the same if not for tectonic shifting, large bodies of water, and atmospheric phenomena).

George Varros, Mt. Airy, Maryland. See article for more info.

I cannot overstate just how cool the links associated with this article are. Do have a look at

Extreme Extremophiles, Or Don’t Try This At Home Or In Low Earth Orbit

This article from LiveScience reports on a group of “water bears” that don’t believe in stay-cations. Or probably wouldn’t, even if they had a choice. A sample of tardigrades (see the cute picture) were sent into Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) aboard a FOTON-M3 and left to experience the harshest the void of LEO had to offer: high vacuum and deadly cosmic and solar radiation. Amazingly, a number of these critters returned to Earth no (or little) worse for wear and even managed to produce completely normal offspring, no doubt in the hopes of telling their several thousand grandkids the ultimate bedtime story.

The tardigrade (water bear). By Rick Gillis and Roger J. Haro, Department of Biology, University of Wisconsin – La Crosse.

The Earth is covered in extremophiles, organisms that exist (in fact, thrive) in conditions that most every other life form on the planet would cook, freeze, squeeze, or dissolve in. There are bacteria that literally eat heavy metals for lunch, microbes that thrive in water as high as 122 degrees Celsius (and those of you that remember your conversions will note that this is 22 degrees hotter than boiling water), and organisms that grow at pH levels of 3 and below (as in their prefer their hydrochloric acid undiluted, thank you). As for setting the record for most cost spent and least damage done, the simple water bear holds the new World+ Record.

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

Links Used Above (Subject To Web Changes)……

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