What’s Up this Week: April 23 – April 29, 2007

Cassini Crater. Image credit: Wes HigginsMonday, April 23 – Pioneer quantum physicist Max Planck was born on this day in 1858. In 1900, Max developed the Planck equation to explain the shape of blackbody spectra (a function of temperature and wavelength of emission). A “blackbody” is any object that absorbs all incident radiation – regardless of wavelength. For example, heated metal has blackbody properties because the energy it radiates is thermal. The blackbody spectrum’s shape remains constant, and the peak and height of an emitter can be measured against it – be it cosmic background radiation or our own bodies.

Now, let’s put this knowledge into action. Stars themselves approximate blackbody radiators, because their temperature directly controls the color we see. A prime example of a “hot” star is Alpha Virginis, better known as Spica. Compare its color to the cooler Arcturus… What colors do you see? There are other astronomical delights that radiate like blackbodies over some or all parts of the spectrum as well. You can observe a prime example in a nebula such as M42, in Orion. By examining the radio portion of the spectrum, we find the temperature properly matches that of electrons involved in the process of fluorescence. Much like a common household fixture, this process is what produces the visible light we can see.

Tonight’s outstanding lunar feature will be crater Maurolycus just southwest of the three rings of Theophilus, Cyrillus and Catharina. This lunar club challenge spans 114 kilometers and goes below the lunar surface by 4730 meters. Be sure to look for Gemma Frisius just to its north.

Tuesday, April 24 – Today in 1970, China launched its first satellite. Named Shi Jian 1, it was a successful technological and research craft. This achievement made China the fifth country to send a vessel into space.

Before we explore space, let’s have a look at the Moon tonight as challenge craters Cassini and Cassini A now come into view just south of the black slash of the Alpine Valley. The major crater spans 57 kilometers and reaches a floor depth of 1240 meters. The challenge is to also spot the central crater A, which is only 17 kilometers wide, yet drops down another 2830 meters below the surface.

Now let’s have a look at 140 light-year distant Epsilon Hydrae – the northernmost star in the small circlet east of Procyon. While it and Rho will make a beautiful visual double for binoculars, Epsilon itself is a multiple system. Its A and B components are a tough split for any scope, but the 8th magnitude C star is easier. The D component is a dwarf star.

Wednesday, April 25 – Today marks the 15th anniversary of the deployment of Hubble Space Telescope. While everyone in the astronomical community is well aware of what this magnificent telescope “sees,” did you know that you can see it with just your eyes? The HST is a satellite that can be tracked and observed. Visit heavens-above.com and enter your location. This page will provide you with a list of visible passes for your area. Although you can’t see details of the scope itself, it’s great fun to track with binoculars or see the Sun glinting off its surface in a scope.

Keep a watch on the skies tonight as the Mu Virginid meteor shower reaches its peak at 7 to 10 per hour. With dark skies tonight, you still might catch one of these medium speed meteors radiating from a point near the constellation of Libra.

Tonight look for Saturn one degree south of the Moon. This could be an occultation, so check IOTA information! As we look at the lunar surface, the terminator is silently moving west revealing old craters in a new light. Let’s have a look:

(1) Sinus Asperitatis, (2) Theophilus, (3) Cyrillus, (4) Catharina, (5) Rupes Altai, (6) Piccolomini, (7) Sacrobosco, (8) Abulfeda, (9) Almanon, (10) Taylor, (11) Abenezra, (12) Apianus, (13) Playfair, (14) Aliacensis, (15) Werner, (16) Blanchinus, (17) Lacaille, (18) Walter, (19) Regiomontanus, (20) Purbach, (21) Thebit, (22) Arzachel, (23) Alphonsus, (24) Ptolemaeus, (25) Albategnius.

Thursday, April 26 – On this date in 1920, the Shapely-Curtis debate raged in Washington on the nature of and distance to spiral nebulae. Shapely claimed they were part of one huge galaxy to which we all belonged, while Curtis maintained they were distant galaxies of their own. Thirteen years later on the same date, Arno Penzias was born. He went on to become a Nobel Prize winner for his part in the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation, through searching for the source of the “noise” coming from a simple horn antenna. His discovery helped further our understanding of cosmology in ways that Shapely and Curtis could have never dreamed of.

Tonight Regulus is less than a degree away from the waxing gibbous Moon. Check IOTA! On the lunar surface, we can enjoy a strange, thin feature. If you used last night’s map, you’re well acquainted with this area! Look toward the lunar south where you will note the prominent rings of craters Ptolemaeus, Alphonsus, Arzachel, Purbach, and Walter descending from north to south. Just west of them, you’ll see the emerging Mare Nubium. Between Purbach and Walter you will see the small, bright ring of Thebit with a crater caught on its edge. Look further west and you will see a long, thin, dark feature cutting across the mare. Its name? Rupes Recta – better known as The Straight Wall, or sometimes Rima Birt. It is one of the steepest known lunar slopes rising around 366 meters from the surface at a 41 degree angle.

Be sure to mark your lunar challenge notes and we’ll visit this feature again!

Friday, April 27 – Tonight we’ll use what we learned last month to locate another unusual feature – Montes Recti or the “Straight Range.” You’ll find this curiosity tucked between Plato and Sinus Iridum on the north shore of Mare Imbrium.

To binoculars or small scopes at low power, this isolated strip of mountains will appear as a white line drawn across the grey mare. It is believed this feature may be all that is left of a crater wall from the Imbrium impact. It runs for a distance of around 90 kilometers, and is approximately 15 kilometers wide. The Straight Range and some of its peaks reach up to 2072 meters! Although this doesn’t sound particularly impressive, that’s over twice as tall as the Vosges Mountains in central western Europe, and on the average very comparable to the Appalachian Mountains in the eastern United States.

Now have a look at 27 Hydrae about a fingerwidth southwest of Alpha. It’s an easy double for any equipment with its slightly yellow 5th magnitude primary and distant, white, 7th magnitude secondary. Although it is wide, the pair is a true binary system.

Saturday, April 28 – Today was a very busy day in astronomy history. Newton published his Principia in 1686 on April 28. In 1774, Francis Baily was born. He went on to revise star catalogs and explain the phenomenon at the beginning and ending of a total solar eclipse which we know as “Baily’s Beads.” 1900 saw the birth of Jan Hendrick Oort, who quantified the Milky Way’s rotation characteristics and envisioned the vast, spherical area of comets outside our solar system that we now call the Oort Cloud. Last, but not least, was the birth of Bart Jan Bok in 1906 who studied the structure and dynamics of the Milky Way.

Tonight you are on your own without a map. Lunar features are easy when you become acquainted with them! Return to the Moon and explore with binoculars or telescopes the area to the south around another easy and delightful lunar feature, the crater Gassendi. At around 110 kilometers in diameter and 2010 meters deep, this ancient crater contains a triple mountain peak in its center. As one of the most “perfect circles” on the Moon, the south wall of Gassendi has been eroded by lava flows over a 48 kilometer expanse and offers a great amount of detail to telescopic observers on its ridge- and rille-covered floor.

For those observing with binoculars? Gassendi’s bright ring stands on the north shore of Mare Humorum…an area about the size of the state of Arkansas!

For SkyWatchers, no equipment is necessary to enjoy the Alpha Bootid meteor shower – despite the Moon. Pull up a comfortable seat and face orange Arcturus as it climbs the sky in the east. These slow meteors have a fall rate of 6 to 10 per hour and leave very fine trails, making an evening of quiet contemplation most enjoyable.

Sunday, April 29 – If you’re up before dawn and would like to catch Uranus in binoculars, you’ll find it less than a degree north of Mars!

Return to the Moon tonight to have a look on the terminator near the southern cusp for two outstanding features. The easiest is crater Schickard – a class V mountain-walled plain that spans 227 kilometers. Named for German astronomer Wilhelm Schickard, this beautiful old crater with the subtle interior details has another crater caught on its northern wall named Lehmann.

Look further south for one of the Moon’s most incredible features – Wargentin. Among the many strange things on the lunar surface, Wargentin is unique. Once upon a time, it was a very normal crater and had been that way for hundreds of millions of years – then it happened. Either a fissure opened in its interior, or the meteoric impact that formed it caused molten lava to begin to rise. Oddly enough, Wargentin’s walls were without large enough breaks to allow the lava to escape and it continued to fill the crater to the rim. Often referred to as “the Cheese,” enjoy Wargentin tonight for its unusual appearance and be sure to note Nasmyth and Phocylides as well!

While we’re out, have a look at R Hydrae about a fingerwidth east of Gamma – which is a little more than fistwidth south of Spica. R is a beautiful, red, long-term variable first observed by Hevelius in 1662. Located about 325 light-years from us, it’s approaching – but not that fast. Be sure to look for a visual companion star as well!