Syracuse Astronomical Society President's Message For November, 2008

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

Greetings Fellow Astrophiles!

This is turning into a very orange November newsletter, just in time to remind you of the color that HAD been on the trees just a few weeks ago. The SAS tends to go into hibernation mode during the winter as everyone in Central New York slows down with the increasing cold outside, but there's still plenty happening in the next few weeks provided you dress accordingly.

Gallery Of The Rising Sun

Just in time for the CNY temperatures to take a turn for the colder, a gallery from of solar images is sure to, er, brighten your day (had to do it). During the last two Summer Seminars that included daytime observing, I was struck by just how little we amateur astronomers seem to dedicate in time and filters to our nearest star (I consider the Bader film covers for my 25×100's an important part of my equipment list). We're fortunate that NASA and major observatories all over the world make solar viewing an important part of their research and that they constantly publish amazing images and movies of solar activity.

Not Enough Minutes In The Day… reports on the discovery of the "hottest and fastest" planet in town (what did you think they were going to report on?). The new Jupiter-sized planet, appropriately titled WASP-12b, orbits 1/40 of an Astronomical Unit (the distance between the Sun and the Earth) from its host star and whips around this star in about one Earth day. If that was not extreme enough, this new planet has a surface temperature of 2250 oC, as hot as some of the coolest stars in the galaxy.

Jupiter-sized planets originally served as the basis for identifying stars with orbiting planets (because of their gravitational influence on the stars they orbit), now they serve as the celestial Chuck Yeager's of planetary formation, causing scientists to rethink (or just plain throw out) older models of how planets form.

Still Not A Drop To Drink, But You'll Dehydrate More Fashionably Than Ever

Recent observations by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have revealed opal deposits on the surface, which now pushes ahead the window for liquid water on the Martian surface from 3 billion to 2 billion years ago, making that entire window approximately 1.5 billions years long. While I've come to the point of cringing every time I read it, these findings "have implications for the possibility that Mars once supported life." I would be ecstatic to see a photo of a Martian microbe or clam shell on the front of the New York TImes, but the leap from water to organisms is one that EVERY NASA news conference has been very hesitant to even begin to speculate on (did you notice how long it took for NASA presenters to get to the point of even saying "we are now confident that the equipment has provided us evidence for water on the surface" instead of just saying "we found water"?).

The presence of hydrated silica (opal) on the Martian surface marks a new chapter in the geological history of Mars that began with the discoveries of phyllosilicates (from 3.5 billion years ago) and hydrated sulfates (from 3 billion years ago). Opal is formed when liquid water reacts with materials that are formed from either volcanic activity of meteor impact delivery, two types of phenomena that are constant, gradual sources of these new materials (not just from the earliest formation of the planet). That these opal deposits were discovered in reasonably young land formations (geologically speaking, anyway) means that liquid water had to at some point be present in the area. That liquid water has been found to have occurred at this 2 billion year mark only pushes ahead the "end-time" for surface water, which awaits the next discovery from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to bring it still closer to "present day."

RASC Observer's Handbook 2009

You know the New Year is fast approaching when Mike Brady makes mention of the new Observer's Handbook from the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC). The Observer's Handbook (now in its 101st year of publication) is often regarded as the standard of astronomical tabulation and reference information for observers in North America. If you've not the benefit of two dozen really good web browser bookmarks or a copy of some digital planetarium program (like the free program, which is handy to have regardless!) to plan your observing session, the Observer's Handbook is definitely a resource to keep in mind (or in your box of scope accessories).

The RASC even maintains a webpage of updates and corrections to the book (which is worth a regular check if you come to rely on the Handbook for planning your evenings). The soft cover book (at 320 pages) sells for $25.95 + $6.50 S&H (total $32.45). For more information, see the RASC website at

And On A Political Note…

While I often avoid publicly taking sides on political issues, something about the last rounds of presidential debates and campaigning really irradiated my outer crust. The John McCain campaign on several occasions (including the presidential candidate himself) complained about Barack Obama's request for a $3 million "overhead projector" in Chicago and how this represented "wasteful extravagance" on the part of the Democratic nominee.

As seems to often be the case in political attacking, the 5-second sound bite leaves out a great deal of information, and even a small amount of investigation reveals a great deal that can speak volumes about a politician's motivations. What the McCain campaign did NOT mention in this petty attack is that the "overhead projector" is actually a planetarium projector to replace the 40 year old Zeiss Mark VI at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, where over half a million visitors each year see far more of the Night Sky than any large city resident could ever hope to. In a time when educators are VERY concerned about how unprepared for science-related professions America's students are, I think $3 million is an embarrassingly small amount of money to spend in the interest of sparking the public's imagination, especially in a city that hosts the University of Chicago, what MOST Project Director Peter Plumley calls "the greatest science institution in the world."

Perish the thought that any amount of money should go to inspiring and motivating people to pursue their interests in the physical sciences.

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

Links Used Above (Subject To Web Changes)

Syracuse Astronomical Society President's Message for June, 2008

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

Greetings fellow astrophiles!

We find ourselves approaching the first Society Meeting/Public Viewing of the Summer with (finally!) an excellent Spring viewing session behind us. And it has been a very busy 20+ days for our tax dollars since our last meeting, some of which I've tried to summarize (with pictures, of course) below. We find ourselves on the verge of another Summer Seminar that we're in the process of planning out for late August. In even better news, the SAS regulars for the Public Viewing sessions have found themselves in the company of some new members and new scopes.

While timing and our usual Spring weather conditions have not been ideal for some member-specific "on call" outings (I've explained to new members that "on call" refers to being ready at a moment's notice to drop evening plans to take in a good observing night, which happen so infrequently that you risk missing a rare golden opportunity if you don't scoot up to Darling Hill when the email or bulletin board post shows up), we remain optimistic that a few reasonable nights lie ahead when we can splurge on the petrol to get us all to Darling Hill for some much needed observing.

Looking at this month's top story…

Let Us Get The Mars News Out Of The Way…

May 25th (the day after our Saturday public viewing on the 24th, which was quite well attended and included plenty of talk about the events of the next day) saw the successful landing of the Phoenix Mars Lander at 125.74922W 68.21883N (or that's where it looked like through my 25×100 binoculars), in the Mars North Polar Region. This is significant for a number of reasons.

1. This is the first of the Mars Scout Missions, which mark a shift at NASA towards low-cost/high-gain exploratory projects (an important selling point in the current economy, where science is definitely feeling the same budget pinches as everyone else).
2. This is only the 6th successful Mars landing out of a total of 12 missions (with the U.S. responsible for 7 of those total 12). Well, 12 acknowledged by various space administrations. Well, 12 from Earth anyway…
3. This has been just about the most exhaustively documented mission to Mars by spacecraft currently orbiting the Red Planet, using cutting edge technology to follow the progress of cutting edge technology. The results have been remarkable.

The spectacular photos from this mission began right from the capsule descent into the Martian atmosphere…

Decent of the Phoenix Lander from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
From Click for a larger view.

…continued with a photo taken of the Phoenix Lander from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

The Mars Phoenix Lander from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
From…lander-topviewcolor2-427.jpg. Click for a larger view.

…and culminated this past week with the first official confirmation of water (a before-and-after of disappearing ice, but we'll take it) just below the surface.

Water ice on Mars! From Click for a larger view.

And, of course, where there is/was water, there is/was the most important component of conditions necessary for biological processes AS WE KNOW THEM to occur. The lab-in-a-ship facilities on Phoenix will also test some of the other conditions (basic organic molecules).

But wait! There's more!

I was quite pleased to stumble upon a "Big Picture" post at highlighting some of the best images and animations from Mars both on the ground and high in orbit. All are available from various NASA pages, but not so perfectly grouped and cropped.

A little perspective. Earth and Moon from Mars. Series at Click for a larger view.

First Twice The Size, Now Half As Many Arms

While our Milky Way has remained exactly the same, our understanding of it has undergone quite a makeover this year. In the March/April message, I made mention of researchers at the University of Sydney discovering that the Milky Way is twice as wide as previous determined. Now, researchers analyzing Spitzer Space Telescope data have determined that our previously four-armed Milky Way galaxy is down to a very familiar two. Just like that, the common model changes, waiting for new data to confirm or alter what we think we know about our own galaxy. It makes a scientist feel good to know that there's plenty, plenty we still don't even know about our own backyard.

A new view of the Milky Way. From Click for a larger view.

The most interesting image to come from this work made the Astronomy Picture of the Day on June 6th and is shown below. You'll note our location out towards the outer third of the galaxy in the Sagittarius Arm. Those that have been to a Public Viewing have seen any one of the green laser pointers lase out towards the constellation Sagittarius and remark on how that constellation is between ourselves and the center of the Milky Way (which places it in the vicinity of 0o Galactic Longitude). It is nice to have one's bearings in the Night Sky! There are probably 100 billion such images on 100 billion worlds around the approximately 100 billion stars in our galaxy that all have themselves at the center of the radial plot.

I Didn't Even Know It Was Sick

"Dead Sun." What a depressing thought. Beyond some potential global warming implications and our own discomfort at not being able to understand the one star we can't do without, reports about the absence of Sun Spots and our lack of understanding about the situation hit me particularly hard because I finally decided that I wanted to take the Bader solar filters I made for my 25×100 binoculars at last year's Summer Seminar and get some blue sky daytime viewing in. All that work and I'll have to wait another few years for something to see?!

A boring day on the Sun. From Click for a larger view.

Admittedly, the headline's a little tongue-in-cheek, but that is certainly not to say that the situation isn't something to make astronomers and climatologists think.

And, if the Sun went nova right now, we wouldn't know it for 7.5 minutes, the time it takes the light to reach the Earth (then there's be the longer wait for all the debris, but let's not think about it for another 2 or 3 billion years).

The "Barlow Bob" NEAF Special

I was happy to find a number of emails waiting in my inbox last week with content worth sharing from Robert Godfrey, the Rockland Astronomy Club's own Barlow Bob (why don't we have one of those? How about a Bino Brady? Recollimation Ray? Spotting Scope Stu?). A few reading this might know that Rockland is the host of NEAF, the NorthEast Astronomy Forum, where good amateur astronomers everywhere can exercise some purchasing power (or fiscal irresponsibility, depending on how far overboard they go) and listen to lectures from the gamut of stellar speakers, from astrophotographers to astronauts. Last year Ray came back with several photographs I posted in the May message. This year I received a link to a number of photos straight from the Rockland source.

In keeping with the solar observing thread from above, I direct you to Barlow Bob's slideshow of daytime observing festivities at the Rockland Community College during NEAF. I originally had no idea what the security guard was doing in uniform patrolling the observers, but then it hit me. Here's a group that spends its nights outside and its days recovering. Given how little Sun they get with their scopes, someone must have guessed the whole lot of'em would be overcome with Vitamin D and go crazy from the heat.

Any members that made it to NEAF'08 with stories to tell do send them off for a posting in the July message!

NEAF at Rockland Community College. From Click for a larger view.

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

Links Used Above (Subject To Web Changes)