Syracuse Astronomical Society President's Message for November, 2007

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

This brief November post coincides with the rapid approach of the next MOST Space Science Series lecture this Thursday, November 8th. To the MOST lecture this week, add the Cafe Scientifique meeting this Tuesday, November 6th (no, it is not astronomy, but there is worth in noting when public science discussions go on in Central New York) and, if you haven't heard, the recent million-fold re-invigoration of Comet Holmes as it continues its trek beyond the inner Solar System.

A reminder from last month's message: The MOST lectures and our usual Friday/Saturday viewing schedules no longer coincide, a problem that may disappear in shorter order as winter (if we have one. It is safe to assume that the Darling Hill viewing sessions are done for the rest of this year) sets in and we close the observatory for the season. As always, keep track of the "Who's Observing" page to see if anyone plans on going to Darling Hill.

MOST Space Science Series 2.0

From the official release: "The four-part 2007-2008 meritorious science speaker series at the Milton J. Rubenstein Museum of Science & Technology (MOST), 500 South Franklin St. in Syracuse's historic Armory Square, will highlight Space Science. Our invited audience is citizens of Central New York with an interest in space – no experience with intergalactic space travel is necessary. It is our expectation to take you out there! Middle and high school students and their parents are also welcome."

The Series opened late last month with a lecture from Professor Martha Haynes on The Arecibo Legacy Fast ALFA (ALFALFA) Survey: A Hunt for Starless Galaxies. To the enlightening discussion of the search for dark matter in her research group was added an atypically lengthy question and answer session that covered the gamut of basic astronomy questions, detailed specifics from her talk, and a slight digression into a bit of political dark matter concerning the future of the Arecibo Observatory.

This month's lecture is from Professor Yervant Terzian, a prolific and very highly-regarded professor at Cornell (and former chair of the Astronomy Department). It is difficult to argue with the talk title for his Thursday meeting: "The Magnificent Universe."

UCLA Galactic Center Group Animation

From the UCLA Galactic Center Group website.
Click on the image for the full version.

One of the questions during the Q/A session of last month's MOST lecture was "Is there a supermassive black hole in the center of our galaxy?" Having just lectured that day on the subject, Prof. Haynes had quite possibly the most demonstrative answer on hand in the form of the animated gif above. This movie, from the Andrea Ghez Group at UCLA, shows the motion of stars at the galactic center around an object, marked with a "star" itself in the center of the image. The path of stars are shown as observed from the middle of 1995 to the middle of 2006, with the added few years (to 2011) the results of calculations that predict orbital path. How often do we describe the motions of stars in terms of "orbital paths," the words we used to describe the motions of satellites around planets and planets around stars? The size of the figure is "one parsec," with a 0.1 parsec ruler shown in the image. For comparison, the 0.1 parsec is approximately 0.33 light years, meaning these stars are moving FAST in their orbits around an object that, as argued from its influence on these stellar motions, must be a supermassive black hole.From the UCLA website: A 2.2 micron animation of the stellar orbits in the central parsec. Images taken from the years 1995 through 2006 are used to track specific stars orbiting the proposed black hole at the center of the Galaxy. These orbits, and a simple application of Kepler's Laws, provide the best evidence yet for a supermassive black hole, which has a mass of 4 million times the mass of the Sun. Especially important are the stars S0-2, which has an orbital period of only 15.56 years, and S0-16, which comes a mere 90 astronomical units from the black hole.

Comet Holmes or "Elements, My Dear Watson!"

Click on the image for more information.

This past week saw quite a surprise for the comet hunter community, with Comet Holmes (17P) going from telescope nearly-visible to naked eye visible, so bright it could be readily picked out in downtown Syracuse (in front of the MOST in Armory Square of all places) after the MOST lecture last Thursday (Perseus lying to the North-East just above the Syracuse skyline). Observatory Director Raymond Dague, never missing a beat or a chance to set up the new scope, provided an impromptu viewing session at the MOST steps. The view of the comet was amazing, complete with a blue-ish haze surrounding a brilliant bright core slightly off-center within the right of the halo comprised of comet ejecta.The history of this comet, including past precedent (this same event was noted, at a smaller scale, 115 years ago) has been exhaustively summarized and linked at the Sky and Telescope website. The numerous notes and observing records, including the brilliant astro images accompanying the article, are available at

From the Sky and Telescope website: "A distant comet that was as faint as magnitude 18 on October 20th has suddenly brightened by a millionfold, altering the naked-eye appearance of the constellation Perseus.This startling outburst of Comet Holmes (17P) may be even stronger than the one that occurred 115 years ago, in November 1892, when the comet was first spotted by English amateur Edwin Holmes.According to IAU Circular 8886, issued Wednesday October 24th by the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams in Cambridge, Massachusetts, A. Henriquez Santana at Tenerife, Canary Islands, was the first to notice the outburst shortly after local midnight on the 24th. The comet was then about 8th magnitude, but within minutes Ramon Naves and colleagues in Barcelona, Spain, caught it at magnitude 7.3.

Internet discussion groups came alive with the news. 'To my amazement, 17P had brightened to naked-eye visibility,' exclaimed Bob King when he spotted Comet Holmes shortly before dawn in Duluth, Minnesota. 'What a sight!' he
posted to the Comets Mailing List. Alan Hale of Cloudcroft, New Mexico, concurred. To Hale (well-known codiscoverer of Comet Hale-Bopp) it appeared essentially starlike in a telescope until he switched to high power.

Then things only got better. As Earth continued to turn, nightfall arrived in Japan. 'It is visible with naked eyes in a large city!' posted Seiichi Yoshida, who observed the comet from beside Tsurumi River in Yokohama. By 17:15 Universal Time he was describing Comet Holmes as magnitude 2.8."

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

Links Used Above (Subject To Web Changes)

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