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 October, 2008

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

Greetings fellow astrophiles! Beginning this October newsletter with a little bit of business…

SAS Newsletter Version 2.0

NOTE: This section is in reference to the SAS October newsletter. If you've not read it yet, download it HERE.

This is not only the second of the new newsletters, it represents a bit of a leap in technology as well. Part of the busy work of putting the September newsletter together involved generating hyperlinks for all of the interesting things mentioned in all of the articles so that you could simply click on a word you wanted more info about and BLAMO! you're off to either the main article or, as you may have noticed from my previous website messages, right to the wikipedia page for everything anyone cared to provide. Well, it turns out that Word for Mac (OSX) will easily print/save PDF files, but it will NOT preserve the hyperlinks. While it may have been just as easy to buy a Windows computer (chuckle) and a copy of Microsoft Office (double), I'm pleased to report that Pages for OSX does a nice job of formatting AND PDF's the hyperlinks correctly. If you see a word or phrase that appears in BLUE like this, you can click and, hopefully, your default web browser will open the webpage associated with the link.

As you can guess, the printed version of this PDF does not ring the butler with the Encyclopedia Britannica when you touch the linked text.

In An Expanding Universe, Our World Gets A Little Smaller

This October newsletter includes a review provided by Robert Godfrey, better known to NEAF attendees and many solar astronomy enthusiasts as "Barlow Bob." The Great Barlow'ed One (if I may be so bold) is a member of the Rockland Astronomy Club, has been at the center of the NEAF (Northeast Astronomy Forum. Just ask Mike Brady and Ray Dague how much of their money never made it back to CNY) Solar Star Parties, and has been cited as responsible for more amateur astronomer's interest in solar observing than anyone else I've seen online. We began a series of exchanges nearly a year ago and I was honored to find his kind remarks about our September newsletter in my email last month.

Barlow Bob

In searching out other astronomy club newsletters during the formulation of the new SAS newsletter, I noticed that "Barlow Bob" appeared often. Among his many other beneficial astronomical activities, Bob makes his own writings of product reviews, history, observing, and events (including the NEAF Solar Star Party) freely available for astronomy club use. I'm pleased that the SAS newsletter is yet another periodical to benefit from Bob's writings.

Still More Space Science At The MOST

The good Prof. Peter Plumley, exhibits projects manager for the MOST, has provided the dates for the two 2008 Space Science Speaker Series lectures in the Bristol IMAX Theater at the MOST (2009 dates coming). The first of these comes on Thursday the 30th, the far end of the tail that has already been comet October.

MOST lecture

This image shows how much the ground moved over the course of 1 day near Juneau, Alaska. The gray areas are water and the colored areas are on land. Each color cycle shows ground deformation 3 cm toward the overflying satellite. Areas with many color cycles show glaciers that are moving about 50 cm (20 inches) per day.

The first lecture is from Prof. Matthew Pritchard of Cornell, who will be talking about his research, using satellites to look at Earth to provide bird's eye (at various regions of the electromagnetic spectrum) views of geological changes on the planet.

And, with those updates, some astronomy news…

"The Ring's Mostly Empty – It Goes In A Circle – And – Oh My God! It's Full Of Really Old Rocks!"

If you read Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey, you know his original vision had Saturn as the central planet in the story of the monolith (it is reported that Stanley Kubrick could not make a realistic-looking ring system for Saturn and opted to use the simpler Jupiter. Clarke then wrote the sequels based on these, er, new coordinates). I wish not to ruin plot lines, but Clarke attributes Saturn's ring material to the "engineering" of Japetus (Iapetus in other texts. Consonantal I = J in Latin) 3 millions years prior.

Saturn Rings

Nothing new to see here, but still plenty to see. From NASA.

Previous estimates put the age of the ring system at only 100 millions years (a surprise to me!). The relative "youth" of the rings had been proposed because, well, they look too dang good. To have the rings be as "bright and pristine" as they appear now in the presence of a Solar System full of colliding meteors and cosmic debris, the argument was that the rings had to be recent, meaning we were simply lucky to be here to see such an amazing spectacle.


The central seam of the moon Japetus. From NASA.

New simulations of the ring system, combined with observations from the Cassini mission, now predict that the constant bombardment of the rings by debris might break up the icy matter that constitutes the rings, but there is much more, and more massive, material in the ring system that can re-clump after being broken apart. The rings are now believed to possibly be nearly as old as the Solar System itself.

This does not make Iapetus any less interesting as a really weird satellite that shows a sign or two of extensive Celestial over-engineering. Perhaps our MOST lecture in November will provide more details!

Let The Interstellar Wargames Begin!

With all the phenomenal Hubble photos taken, it is nice to know that ground scopes can still take first prize in the imagination-spurring category. The image shown is the star 1RXS J160929.1-210524 and, of far more interest, its planetary companion. If the analysis is correct, this is the FIRST extra-solar planet ever seen, orbiting at a distance 330 times that of the Sun – Earth distance (known as an "Astronomical Unit." Distant Pluto averages only 40 AUs).

New Planet

1RXS J160929.1-210524. From the Gemini North Telescope.

That large separation is the reason for the observation. Even with state-of-the-art equipment, we've not the resolving power to see planets (yet) at AU values that correspond to our own. This is also why the majority of extra-solar systems discovered involve massive planets, as they're the only ones with enough mass to appreciably interact with their suns to make the characteristic "wobbling" or "dimming" signatures that are our evidence for planets.

…And China Makes Three

On Sept. 27, the Chinese (and Zhai Zhigang) became members of an exclusive club as the third independent nation to send an astronaut on an extra-vehicular excursion. Zhai joins Edward White (U.S,. June 3, 1965) and Alexey Leonov (former Soviet Union, March 18, 1965. The Alexey Leonov is the vessel sent to Discovery in Clarke's 2010) as the first men of their nations to take a walk on the near-vacuum side.

Chinese Walk

All dressed up and only one place to go. Zhai "outside" Earth.

The extent to which the U.S. and China are on good terms is manifest in the relative lack of excitement (or concern) by the U.S. Public about the rapid progress of the Chinese Space Program. While I was two decades away from experiencing the whirlwind, I am aware of the ramifications on U.S. politics and science education that the announcement of the successful launch of Sputnik 1 brought.

Jived By That Cosmic Debris

Moon Dust

A vacuum dirtier. Harrison Schmitt of Apollo 17. From NASA.

If anywhere else in the universe, the dust in our vacuum cleaners would be the focus of doctoral theses, multi-million-dollar spectrometers, and NASA podcasts. That the universe is a dirty place did not make itself immediately known to NASA engineers and the flight planners that sent Apollo astronauts to the surface of the Moon. This story from ScienceDaily reports on a joint GSA, SSSA, ASA, CSSA, and GCAGS conference section (yes, you will have to look those up yourself) entitled "Living on a Dusty Moon."

The Moon is a dirty place, responsible for space suit problems and a small dust storm within the lunar return vehicle. According to Larry Taylor of the University of Tennessee about the Apollo 17 mission, "The dust was so abrasive that it actually wore through three layers of Kevlar-like material on (astronaut) Jack's (Schmitt) boot."

SpaceX Marks Their Spot

Far and away the most impressive video you will see on youtube today. The SpaceX company, started by Elon Musk of Paypal fame, has, in their fourth try, made history by putting the first privately-owned rocket into space. The Falcon 1 rockets that serve as the base for orbital endeavors have had their share of press for what didn't go right, starting with their first sub-minute failure to their most recent (before this launch) timing error of the first-stage separation.


The eventual view outside your window. Falcon 1,

We are fortunate that the video feed from the rocket itself proves beyond shadow of doubt that 4's a charm. The photo above is one frame from that video. To see the entire movie (and, more fun, to play it backwards quickly to get an even better sense of the take-off), click HERE to go to the youtube video.

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

Links Used Above (Subject To Web Changes)…/facultystaff_research.aspx?id=2043