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)

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)