Syracuse Astronomical Society President's Message for May, 2008

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

Now Can We Have Our Marathon?!

Greetings fellow astrophiles. As some of you may know, we've had a very poor run of public viewings and society meetings this year. April was a complete mud wash at the Observatory, with 2 full hours of patient waiting revealing roughly three stars (that all four of us at the Hill agreed on seeing, anyway. Fortunately, we were having too much fun to really worry about it). May 2nd and 3rd? Less mud but far more overcast conditions (if such a thing were possible).

Perhaps it would be better to not say anything in the event the SAS monthly message is the jinx, but we will be having out second May Public Viewing and Society Meeting this Friday (and, in the event the weather doesn't hold out, Saturday) at Darling Hill. The full Messier Marathon (of all 110 objects) is beyond possibility at this point, but there are plenty of clusters within easy reach of a decent pair of binoculars to our South in Sagittarius (not Cortland). While we're not meeting right at a New Moon as we've planned our new observing schedule around, the Moon should not interfere with many of the brightest Messier objects and certainly won't interfere with viewing of Saturn and Venus, which will be prominent in the Night's Sky both on the 24th and 25th, and Mars, which will have just completed a transit through M44, the Beehive Cluster, on the early morning of the 24th.

Hubble's view of Mars. From
Click for a larger view.

The Beehive Cluster. From
Click for a larger view.

In the event that we find ourselves not risking the combustion of precious hydrocarbons over another overcast observing weekend, I thought it worth at least reporting a place or two to go where the sky is more predictable, your feet stay warmer, and the tear-down is faster (which are all lousy reasons if you're an amateur astronomer!). These two websites were recently reported on by the New York Times if you're looking for some more background.

Google Sky

Having tackled the Earth, Moon, and Mars, Google has set their sites a bit higher with their Google Sky site. Like everything Google, the interface is straightforward enough that you can literally search-and-go to anywhere within the SDSS (Sloan Digital Sky Survey) as soon as the browser window loads. As an example, I've included a screenshot below with another view of the Beehive Cluster. The representation of the smallest objects in the sky (the planets) are a little quirky (try searching Mars and you'll see what I mean) while you're searching in Deep Sky mode (note the buttons on the lower left corner that select for different objects) but having easy access to the SDSS deep sky data today more than makes up for any wait in data processing on the Google-side.

Screenshot of Google Sky. Click on the image for a larger version. (WWT)

Mike Brady reported on this one as well. In true interoperability fashion, I could not find the download link for the software on the WWT site using my Windows XP machine (and did I mention that Microsoft Research is responsible for the development of the WWT?) in Internet Explorer. The download link showed up just fine in my OSX Safari browser (this link should be obvious when you click on Experience WWT). The download link is provided HERE.


APOD Mars Flight Simulator v1

If you don't keep track of this site, you're missing out on some great visuals. The Astronompy Picture of the Day goes all the way back to June 16, 1995 (that's ancient by WWW standards!) and has been as much a regular feature on Astronomy Blogs (and Astro Society sites such as this one) as it has on the big Web 2.0 news services (such as Slashdot and Digg).

I thought the May 19th APOD was worth throwing in at the last minute. Doug Ellison and Randolph Kirk have combined data from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Spirit Rover (auto makers, take note!) to make a fly-by animation of the Columbia Hills (which you can see in flattened detail by going to the Google Mars site).

Flying Over the Columbia Hills of Mars

Doug Ellison, Randolph Kirk (USGS), MSSS, MER, NASA

ESA Swarm Gallery

Way back in 1988, Marstar and the Walt Disney Company put out a made-for-TV movie called Earth Star Voyager, about a spaceship of teens en route to survey a planet that, having learned our lessons on an overcrowded and over-polluted Earth, we'd be a bit more careful about mismanaging. One of the first post-take-off scenes involved the Voyager having to navigate through all of the satellite and previous spaceship debris that humanity couldn't find anywhere else to put.

Just when you thought it was safe to take-off from Anywhere, USA en route to your stellar destination, the ESA has added to their list of gallery content several images mapping all of the satellites and large debris floating in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO). No, the images are not to scale, but when objects are pulling +25,000 mph/h, they cover quite a bit of ground, er, sky. While I suspect we've a ways to go before space pollution becomes a major issue, one hopes that someone in our Space Administration is keeping tabs of our far future launch windows of opportunity (and, we hope, coordinating with all of the other Space-Faring nations and those yet to come). If the destruction of USA 193 is any indication, our Navy may get their money's worth from the gaming community in years to come.

Objects in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) – view over the North Pole.
Click on the image to go to the ESA site.

"Not Enough Stars In The Night" by Brendan DuBois

A link from our own Prof. John McMahon: "Here's a little bit of fiction that speaks volumes… "

"Science and progress has turned inward, creating new realities and entire new worlds. Fletcher works as a virtual reality tester to escape to the past, and longs for a bygone era when humankind could still gaze into space."

Story featured in Cosmos Magazine. Read it HERE.

Phoenix Lander Landing. On Land!

Finally, this weekend will hopefully be notable for more than the SAS finally having a Public Viewing session in 2008. The Phoenix Mars Mission is set to roll into high gear on May 25th at 4:38 p.m. EST with the touch-down of the Phoenix Mars Lander. This mission is the first of the NASA "Scout Program" missions, which are aimed at Mars, er, sorry, are aimed at providing important scientific data at low-budget levels in anticipation of, er, in efforts to support major missions in the future, such as a successful Mars landing, which would certainly help to put Earth on the map.

Phoenix Mission Lander on Mars, Artist's Concept
Image from NASA/JPL.

The website should be brimming with activity and my NASA-TV feed will be going all afternoon in the background. With luck, the first pictures will arrive at NASA HQ around 6:30 p.m. EST. If anyone has a sufficiently large scope, we'll attempt to sketch the landing area on the 25th (if the weather on the 24th doesn't hold up, of course).

Space is the place,

Damian Allis, Ph.D.

Links Used Above (Subject To Web Changes)