Bright Binocular Nova Discovered in Lupus

The possible nova in Lupus photographed on Sept. 25 from Australia. Credit: Joseph Brimacombe
The possible nova in Lupus photographed on Sunday, Sept. 25 from Australia. The star is now bright enough to see in binoculars for observers in the far southern U.S. and points south. Credit: Joseph Brimacombe

On September 20, a particular spot in the constellation Lupus the Wolf was blank of any stars brighter than 17.5 magnitude. Four nights later, as if by some magic trick, a star bright enough to be seen in binoculars popped into view. While we await official confirmation, the star’s spectrum, its tattle-tale rainbow of light, indicates it’s a nova, a sun in the throes of a thermonuclear explosion.

A bright possible nova was discovered only days ago near the 3rd magnitude star Epsilon Lupi. It shot from fainter than magnitude +17.5 to its current magnitude +6.8 in just four nights ... and it's still rising. The nova is bright enough to see in binoculars for observers in the far southern U.S., where it's visible low in the southwestern sky in late evening twilight. This map shows the sky facing southwest about an hour after sunset from Key West, Florida, latitude 24.5 degrees north. Source: Stellarium
The nova was discovered on Sept. 23 near the 3rd magnitude star Epsilon Lupi. It rose from fainter than magnitude +17.5 to its current magnitude +6.8 in just four nights … and it’s still rising. It’s visible low in the southwestern sky in late evening twilight low northern latitudes, the tropics and southern hemisphere. This map shows the sky facing southwest about an hour after sunset from Key West, Florida, latitude 24.5 degrees north. Source: Stellarium

The nova, dubbed ASASSN-16kt for now, was discovered during the ongoing All Sky Automated Survey for SuperNovae (ASAS-SN or “Assassin”), using data from the quadruple 14-cm “Cassius” telescope in CTIO, Chile. Krzysztof  Stanek and team reported the new star in Astronomical Telegram #9538. By the evening of September 23 local time, the object had risen to magnitude +9.1, and it’s currently +6.8. So let’s see — that’s about an 11-magnitude jump or a 24,000-fold increase in brightness! And it’s still on the rise.

Use this chart with binoculars to help you find the likely nova. The field of view is about 5 degrees with north up. The "new star" lies between a bright triangle of stars to the east and the naked-eye star Epsilon Lupi to the west. Stars are labeled with magnitudes. Chart: Bob King,  Source: Stellarium
Use this chart with binoculars to help you find the likely nova. The field of view is about 5 degrees with north up. The “new star” lies between a bright triangle of stars to the east and the naked-eye star Epsilon Lupi to the west. Stars are labeled with magnitudes. Chart: Bob King, Source: Stellarium

The star is located at R.A. 15h 29?, –44° 49.7? in the southern constellation Lupus the Wolf. Even at this low declination, the star would clear the southern horizon from places like Chicago and further south, but in late September Lupus is low in the southwestern sky. To see the nova you’ll need a clear horizon in that direction and observe from the far southern U.S. and points south. If you’ve planned a trip to the Caribbean or Hawaii in the coming weeks, your timing couldn’t have been better!

Novae occur in close binary systems where one star is a tiny but extremely compact white dwarf star. The dwarf pulls material into a disk around itself, some of which is funneled to the surface and ignites in a nova explosion. Credit: NASA
Novae occur in close binary systems where one star is a tiny but extremely compact white dwarf star. The dwarf draws material into a disk around itself, some of which is funneled to the surface and ignites in a nova explosion. Credit: NASA

I’ve drawn the map for Key West, one of southernmost locations on the U.S. mainland, where the nova stands about 7-8° high in late twilight, but you might also see it from southern Texas and the bottom of Arizona if you stand on your tippytoes. Other locales include northern Africa, Finding a good horizon is key. Observers across Central and South America, Africa, India, s. Asia and Australia, where the star is higher up in the western sky at nightfall, are favored.

Nova means “new”, but a nova isn’t a brand new star coming to life but rather an explosion that occurs on the surface of an otherwise faint star no one’s taken notice of – until the blast causes it to brighten 50,000 to 100,000 times.

You can use this AAVSO chart to find the nova and track its changing brightness. Star magnitudes are shown to the tenth with the decimal omitted. Credit: AAVSO
You can use this AAVSO chart to find the nova and track its changing brightness. Star magnitudes are shown to the tenth with the decimal omitted. Click to enlarge. Credit: AAVSO

A nova occurs in a close binary star system, where a small but extremely dense and massive (for its size) white dwarf siphons hydrogen gas from its closely-orbiting companion. After whirling around in a flattened accretion disk around the dwarf, the material gets funneled down to the star’s 150,000 F° surface where gravity compacts and heats the gas until it detonates in a titanic thermonuclear explosion. Suddenly, a faint star that wasn’t on anyone’s radar vaults a dozen magnitudes to become a standout “new star”.

Novae are relatively rare and almost always found in the plane of the Milky Way, where the stars are most concentrated. The more stars, the greater the chances of finding one in a nova outburst. Roughly a handful a year are discovered, many of those in Scorpius and Sagittarius, in the direction of the galactic bulge.

We’ll keep tabs on this new object and report back with more information and photos as they become available. You can follow the new celebrity as well as print out finder charts on the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) website by typing ASASSN-16kt in the info boxes.

I sure wish I wasn’t stuck in Minnesota right now or I’d be staring down the wolf’s new star!

Spectacular Breakup of WT1190F Seen by Airborne Astronomers

Clouds hampered observations from the ground in Sri Lanka during the re-entry of WT1190F overnight, but a team of astronomers captured spectacular images of the object from a high-flying plane over the Indian Ocean very close to the predicted time of arrival. 

Peter Jenniskens of the SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Center will operate eleven staring cameras with a wider field of view, including two spectographic cameras, to catch the reentry if pointing efforts fail. Credit: IAC/UAE Space Agency/NASA/ESA
Peter Jenniskens of the SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Center is shown here before the flight setting up the eleven staring cameras with a wider field of view, including two spectographic cameras, to catch the reentry.  Credit: IAC/UAE Space Agency/NASA/ESA

The International Astronomical Center (IAC) and the United Arab Emirates Space Agency hosted a rapid response team to study the re-entry of what was almost certainly a rocket stage from an earlier Apollo moon shot or the more recent Chinese Chang’e 3 mission. In an airplane window high above the clouds, the crew, which included Peter Jenniskens, Mike Koop and Jim Albers of the SETI Institute along with German, UK and United Arab Emirates astronomers, took still images, video and gathered high-resolution spectra of the breakup.


Video and still imagery of WT1190F’s Reentry November 13, 2015

The group of seven astronomers hoped to study WT1190F’s re-entry as a  test case for future asteroid entries as well as improve our understanding of space debris behavior. Photos and video show the object breaking up into multiple pieces in a swift but brief fireball. From the spectra, the team should be able to determine the object’s nature — whether natural or manmade.

Wide view of the colorful fireball created when WT1190F burned up in Earth's atmosphere. Credit:
Wide view of the colorful fireball and breakup when WT1190F struck Earth’s atmosphere. More than 20 cameras were used to record the event. Credit: IAC/UAE Space Agency/NASA/ESA
Animation made on Nov. 12 when WT1190F was still in one piece in orbit about Earth. Credit: Marco Langbroek
Animation from photos made on Nov. 12 when WT1190F was still in one piece in orbit about the Earth. Credit: Marco Langbroek
Gulfstream 450 business jet, sponsored by United Arab Emirates and coordinated by Mohammad Shawkat Odeh from the International Astronomical Center, Abu Dhabi. There are only five windows available to observe the object. The observation teams comprise:
Flying observatory. This Gulfstream 450 business jet, sponsored by United Arab Emirates and coordinated by Mohammad Shawkat Odeh from the International Astronomical Center, Abu Dhabi, was used by the team to observe and record the re-entry. Only five windows were available to make observations. Credit: IAC/UAE Space Agency/NASA/ESA
SETI Institute staring cameras used for wide field observations of the re-entry. Credit:
SETI Institute “staring cameras” used for wide field observations of the re-entry. Credit: IAC/UAE Space Agency/NASA/ESA

Asteroid? Rocket Stage? Whatever it is, WT1190F Plunges to Earth Tonight

No one’s 100% certain what WT1190F is — asteroid or rocket stage — but we are certain it will light up like a Roman candle when it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere around 6:20 Universal Time (12:20 a.m. CST) tomorrow morning Nov. 13. 


Animation by Jost Jahn of WT1190F’s final hours as it races across the sky coming down off the coast of Sri Lanka

As described in an earlier story at Universe Today, an object discovered by the Catalina Sky Survey on Oct 3rd and temporarily designated WT1190F is expected to burn up about 60 miles (100 km) off the southern coast of Sri Lanka overnight. The same team observed it twice in 2013. Based upon the evolution of its orbit, astronomers determined that the object is only about six feet (2-meters) across with a very low density,  making it a good fit for a defunct rocket booster, possibly one used to launch either one of the Apollo spacecraft or the Chinese Chang’e 3 lander to the Moon.

Below a plot of the last three orbits of WT1190F. The small red circle is the earth. The big green circle is the orbit of the moon, just to give some scale to the chart (click on it for a bigger version).
Below a plot of the last three orbits of WT1190F. The small red circle is the Earth. For scale, the large green circle is the orbit of the Moon. Notice that its final orbit takes straight into Earth. Credit: Bill Gray / Project Pluto

Additional observations of WT1190F have been made in the past few days confirming its re-entry later tonight. Checking the latest predictions on Bill Gray of Project Pluto’s page, the object will likely be visible from Europe about an hour before “touchdown”. To say it will be moving quickly across the sky is an understatement. Try about 3 arc minutes per second or 3° a minute! Very tricky to find and track something moving that fast.

Three 90-second exposures showing WT1190F zipping across the Rosette Nebula taken on Nov. 11, 2015 at the Konkoly Observatory in Hungary. Credit: Krisztián Sárneczky
Three 90-second exposures showing WT1190F zipping across the Rosette Nebula taken on Nov. 11, 2015 at the Konkoly Observatory in Hungary. Credit: Krisztián Sárneczky

58 minutes later, in the minute of time from 6:18 to 6:19 UT,  WT1190F will move one full hour of right ascension and plummet 34° in declination while brightening from magnitude +8 to +4.5. If you’d like to attempt to find and follow the object, head over to JPL’s Horizons site  for the latest ephemerides and orbital elements. At the site, make sure that WT1190F is in the Target Body line. If not, click Change and search for WT1190F in the Target Body field at the bottom of the window.

WT1190F Re-Entry Trajectory – Data courtesy of Bill Gray, Project Pluto
WT1190F re-Entry Trajectory. The object is expected to break up and fall harmlessly into the ocean. Credit: Bill Gray, Project Pluto

You’ll find updates at Bill Gray’s site. According to the most recent positions, the object will pass almost exactly in front of the Sun shortly before plunging into the ocean. Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, is expected to get the best views.

Because the mystery object’s arrival has been fairly well publicized, I hope to update you with a full report and photos first thing tomorrow morning. Like many of you, I wish I could see the show.

Images from Enceladus ‘Plume Dive’ Courtesy of Cassini

Oh, to hitch a ride aboard NASA’s Cassini spacecraft this week. The Saturn orbiting sentinel recently completed an amazing series of passes near the enigmatic ice-covered moon Enceladus, including a daredevil dive only 49 km (31 miles) above the southern pole of the moon and through an ice geyser. Images of the dramatic flyby were released by the Cassini team earlier this morning, revealing the moon in stunning detail. 

Image credit
Enceladus vs the rings of Saturn. Image credit: NASA/JPL Caltech/Space Science Institute

“Cassini’s stunning images are providing us a quick look at Enceladus from this ultra-close flyby, but some of the most exciting science is yet to come,” says NASA mission project scientist Linda Spilker in today’s NASA/JPL press release.

Launched in 1997 from Cape Canaveral Florida in a dramatic night shot, Cassini arrived at the Saturnian system in 2004, and has delivered on some amazing planetary science ever since.

Discovered in 1789 by William Herschel, we got our very first views of Enceladus via the Voyager 1 spacecraft at 202,000 kilometers distant in 1980. Cassini has flown by the moon 21 times over the past decade, and ice geysers were seen sprouting from the surface of the moon by Cassini on subsequent flybys. one final flyby of Enceladus is planned for this coming December.

Image credit:
Ice geysers ahead, in this Oct 28th view from Cassini. Image credit: NASA/JPL Caltech/Space Science Institute

 

Mission planners are getting more daring with the spacecraft as its mission nears completion in 2017. The idea of reaching out and ‘tasting’ an icy plume emanating from Enceladus has been an enticing one,  though a fast-moving good-sized ice pellet could spell disaster for the spacecraft.

NASA successfully established contact with the spacecraft on Wednesday night October 28th after the closest approach for the flyby at 11:22 AM EDT/ 15:22 UT (Universal Time) earlier in the day. Cassini is reported to be in good health, and we should see further images along with science data returns in the weeks to come.

Image credit:
A closeup view of the icy terrain of the southern polar region of Enceladus from this weeks’ flyby. Image credit: NASA/JPL Caltech/Space Science Institute

A second, more distant flyby of Enceladus was completed by Cassini earlier this month as it passed 1,142 miles (1,839 kilometers) from the northern pole of Enceladus on October 14th, 2015 on its E-20 flyby.

But beyond just pretty post-cards from the outer solar system, Cassini’s successive passes by the mysterious moon will characterize just what might be occurring far down below.

Why Enceladus? Well, ever since ice geysers were spotted gushing from the fractured surface of the moon, it’s been on NASA’s short list of possible abodes for life in the solar system. Other contenders include Mars, Jupiter’s moon Europa, and Saturn’s giant moon, Titan. If the story of life on Earth is any indication, you need a place where an abundant level of chemical processes are occurring, and a subsurface ocean under the crust of Enceladus heated by tidal flexing may just fit the bill.

We’ll be adding further images and info to this post as more data comes in over the weekend, plus Cassini mission highlights, a look at the mission and final objectives and the last days of Cassini and more…

Stay tuned!

The end of Cassini in 2017 as it burns up in the atmosphere of Saturn will be a bittersweet affair, as our outer solar system eyes around the ringed planet fall silent. Cassini represents the most distant spacecraft inserted into orbit around a planet, and ESA’s Huygens lander on Titan marked the most remote landing on another world as well. Will we one day see a Titan Blimp or Ocean Explorer, or perhaps a dedicated life-finding mission to Enceladus?  Final mission objectives for NASA’s Cassini spacecraft include a final flyby of Saturn’s large moon Titan, which will set the course for its final death plunge into the atmosphere of Saturn on September 15th, 2017.

A high-resolution capture of Enceladus released this weekend by the Cassini team. The spacecraft was about 60,000 miles (96,000 kilometers) out when this image was taken. You can see the stark contract of the moon's fractured cantlope terrain, versus craters in the opposite hemisphere imaged criedt: NASA/JPL-CalTech/Space Science Institute
A high-resolution capture of Enceladus released this weekend by the Cassini team. The spacecraft was about 60,000 miles (96,000 kilometers) out when this image was taken. You can see the stark contract of the moon’s fractured cantaloupe terrain, versus craters in the opposite hemisphere imaged. Credit: NASA/JPL-CalTech/Space Science Institute

Want to see Enceladus for yourself? The moon orbits Saturn once every 1.4 days, reaching a maximum elongation of 13″ from the ring tips of Saturn and a maximum brightness of magnitude +11.7. Enceladus is one of six major moons of Saturn visible in a backyard telescope, and one of 62 moons of the ring planet known overall. The other five moons within reach of an amateur telescope are: Titan, Mimas, Dione, Rhea, and Tethys, and the fainter moon Hyperion shining at magnitude +15 might just be within reach of skill observers with large light bucket instruments.

Enjoy the amazing views of Enceladus, courtesy of Cassini!

Revealed: Mars to Appear Larger Than a Full Moon!

We can finally reveal the truth.

A massive conspiracy, spanning over a decade, has been revealed at last by basement bloggers, YouTubers and Facebook users everywhere, implicating ‘big-NASA’ and the powers that be in a massive cover-up.

Yes, it’s the month of August once again, and the Red Planet Mars is set to appear ‘larger than a Full Moon’ over the skies of Earth, as it apparently does now… every year.

Um, no. Stop. Just… stop.

Sure, by now, you’ve had the hoax forwarded to you by that certain well-meaning, but astronomically uninformed family member/co-worker/anonymous person on Facebook.

What’s new under the Sun concerning the August Mars Hoax? To see where the hoax was born, we have to journey all the way back to the close opposition of Mars on August 27th, 2003. Hey, we actually took two weeks leave in the Fall of 2003 just to sketch and image Mars each night from our backyard lair in the Sonoran desert south of Tucson, Arizona from the then known Very Small Optical Observatory. Those were the days. We measured dial-up internet speeds in kbit/s, ‘burned CDs,’ and Facebook and Twitter were still some years away. Even spam e-mail was still sorta hip.

Two years later in 2005, we were all amused, as the ‘August Mars Hoax’ chain email made its first post-2003 appearance in our collective inboxes. Heck, we were even eager in those halcyon days to take to the nascent web, and do that new hipster thing known as ‘blogging’ to explain just exactly why this couldn’t be so to the masses.

Later in 2006, 2007, and 2008, it wasn’t so funny.

The Mars Hoax just wouldn’t die. “One more unto the breach,” the collective astro-blogging community sighed, as we all dusted off last year’s post explaining how the Red Planet could never approach our own fair world so closely.

It. Just. Couldn’t. Because orbital mechanics. Because physics.

Even the advent of social media couldn’t kill in annual onslaught of the Mars Hoax, and over a Spiderman movie reboot later, we’re now seeing it shared across Facebook, Twitter and more.

Sure, the Mars Hoax is as fake as Donald Trump’s hair. If there’s any true science lesson to learn here, it’s perhaps the mildly interesting social science study of just how the Mars hoax weathers the lean months of winter, to reemerge every August.

Here’s the skinny (again!) on just why Mars can’t appear as large as the Full Moon:

-The Moon is 3,474 kilometers in diameter, and orbits the Earth at an average distance of just under 400,000 kilometers.

-At this distance, the Moon can only appear about 30’ (half a degree) across.

-Think that’s a lot? Well, you could ring the 360 degree circle of the local horizon with 720 Full Moons.

-Mars, like the Earth, orbits the Sun. Even with Earth at aphelion (its most distant point) and Mars at perihelion, we’re still 206.7 – 151.9 = 54.8 million km apart. Sure, aphelion and perihelion of our respective worlds don’t quite line up in our current epochs, but we’ll indulge imagination and fudge things a bit.

-Though Mars is just over 2x times larger in diameter than the Moon, it’s also more than 143 times farther away, even at its said hypothetical closest.

Credit Dave Dickinson
Mars vs Earth; oppositions from 2003 to 2018, including perihelion and aphelion positions. Image credit: Dave Dickinson

-Still want to see Mars as big as a Full Moon? Perhaps one day, astronauts will, though they’ll have to be orbiting just over a 800,000 km from the Red Planet to do it.

If we sound a little pessimistic in our characterizing the Mars Hoax as a recurring non-story, it’s because we see many truly fantastic things in space news that get far from their far shake. Real stories, of collapsing stars, rogue exoplanets, and intrepid rovers exploring distant worlds. Tales of humanoids, exploring space and doing the very best and noble things humanoids as a species can do.

Want to trace the history the Mars Hoax?

Here’s the saga of Universe Today’s coverage of all things ‘Mars Hoax’ since those olden days of the early web:

2005- No, Mars Won’t Look as Big as the Moon

2006- No, Mars Won’t Look as Big as the Moon in August

2007- Will Mars Look as Big as the Moon on August 27? Nope

2008- Please (Again) – Mars Will NOT Look as Big as the Full Moon

2009- Mars Will NOT Look as Big as the Full Moon… But You Can Watch it Get Closer

2010- Tonight’s the Night Mars Will NOT Look as Big as the Full Moon

2011- Is the Moon Mars Myth Over?

2013- The Cyber Myth that Just Won’t Die

2016- ????

Hey, it looks like the hoax did take a break in 2012 and 2014, so that’s encouraging at least…

The great Mars opposition of 2003. image credit: Dave Dickinson
The great Mars opposition of 2003. Image credit: Dave Dickinson

Now, I’m going to do my best to truly terrify all of science blogger-dom, and leave you with one final thought to consider. Mars reaches opposition (otherwise known in astronomical circles as ‘when it’s really nearest to the Earth’) once roughly every 26 months. All oppositions of Mars are not created equal, owing mostly to the eccentric orbit of the Red Planet. We have another fine opposition of Mars coming right up next year on May 22nd, 2016, followed by one that’s very nearly as favorable as the historic 2003 opposition in 2018, falling juuuuust shy of August on July 28th of that year…

Will the Mars Hoax meme find a new unwitting audience, and with it, new life?

Sleep tight…. we’ll be covering real science stories in the meantime, ’til we’re called to do battle with the Mars Hoax once again.

Naming Pluto: Christening Features on Brave New Worlds

‘Here be Dragons…’ read the inscriptions of old maps used by early seafaring explorers. Such maps were crude, and often wildly inaccurate.

The same could be said for our very understanding of distant planetary surfaces today. But this week, we’ll be filling in one of those ‘terra incognita’ labels, as New Horizons conducts humanity’s very first reconnaissance of Pluto and its moons.

The closest approach for New Horizons is set for Tuesday, July 14th at 11:49 UT/7:49 AM EDT, as the intrepid spacecraft passes 12,600 kilometres (7,800 miles) from Pluto’s surface. At over 4 light hours or nearly 32 astronomical units (AUs) away, New Horizons is on its own, and must perform its complex pirouette through the Pluto system as it cruises by at over 14 kilometres (8 miles) a second.

This also means that we’ll be hearing relatively little from the spacecraft on flyby day, as it can’t waste precious time pointing its main dish back at the Earth. With a downlink rate of 2 kilobits a second—think ye ole 1990’s dial-up, plus frozen molasses—it’ll take months to finish off data retrieval post flyby. A great place to watch a simulation of the flyby ‘live’ is JPL’s Eyes on the Solar System, along with who is talking to New Horizons currently on the Deep Space Network with DSN Now.

A snapshot of the current July 13th view of New Horizons as it nears Pluto. (Image credit: NASA's Eyes on the Solar System).
A snapshot of the current July 13th view of New Horizons as it nears Pluto. (Image credit: NASA’s Eyes on the Solar System).

Launched in 2006, New Horizons is about to join the ranks of nuclear-fueled explorers that have conducted first time reconnaissance of solar system objects.

Bob King also wrote up an excellent timeline of New Horizons events for Universe Today yesterday. Also be sure to check out the Planetary Society’s in-depth look at what to expect by Emily Lakdawalla.

Seems strange that after more than a decade of recycling the same blurry images and artist’s conceptions in articles, we’re now getting a new and improved shot of Pluto and Charon daily!

To follow the tale of Pluto is to know the story of modern planetary astronomy. Discovered in 1930 by American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh from the Lowell Observatory, Pluto was named by 11-year old Venetia Burney. Venetia just passed away in 2009, and there’s a great short documentary interview with her entitled Naming Pluto.

Blink comparitor
The blink comparitor Clyde Tombaugh used to discover Pluto, on display at the Lowell Observatory. Image Credit: David Dickinson

Fun fact: Historians at the Carnegie Institute recently found images of Pluto on glass plates… dated 1925, from five years before its discovery.

Despite the pop culture reference, Pluto was not named after the Disney dog, but after the Roman god of the underworld. Pluto the dog was not named in Disney features until late 1930, and if anything, the character was more than likely named after the buzz surrounding the newest planet on the block.

We’re already seeing features on Pluto and Charon in the latest images, such as the ‘heart,’ ‘donut,’ and the ‘whale’ of Pluto, along with chasms, craters and a dark patch on Charon. The conspicuous lack of large craters on Pluto suggests an active world.

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) convention for naming any new moons discovered in the Plutonian system specifies characters related to the Roman god Pluto and tales of the underworld.

Image credit:
Brake for New Horizons on July 14th… Image credit: David Dickinson

With features, however, cartographers of Pluto should get a bit more flexibility. Earlier this year, the Our Pluto campaign invited the public to cast votes to name features on Pluto and Charon related to famous scientists, explorers and more. The themes of ‘fictional explorers and vessels’ has, of course, garnered much public interest, and Star Trek’s Mr. Spock and the Firefly vessel Serenity may yet be memorialized on Charon. Certainly, it would be a fitting tribute to the late Leonard Nimoy. We’d like to see Clyde Tombaugh and Venetia Burney paid homage to on Pluto as well.

We’ve even proposed the discovery of a new moon be named after the mythological underworld character Alecto, complete with a Greek ‘ct’ spelling to honor Clyde Tombaugh.

The discovery and naming of Charon in 1978 by astronomer Robert Christy set a similar precedent. Christy choose the name of the mythological boatman who plied the river Styx (which also later became a Plutonian moon) as it included his wife Charlene’s nickname ‘Char.’ This shibboleth  also set up a minor modern controversy as to the exact pronunciation of Charon, as the mythological character is pronounced with a hard ‘k’ sound, but most folks (including NASA) say the moon as ‘Sharon’ in keeping with Christy’s in-joke that slipped past the IAU.

And speaking of Pluto’s large moon, someone did rise to the occasion and take our ‘Charon challenge,’ we posed during the ongoing Pluto opposition season recently. Check out this amazing capture of the +17th magnitude moon winking in and out of view next to Pluto courtesy of Wendy Clark:

Image credit
Click here to see the animation of the possible capture of Charon near Pluto. Image credit and copyright: Wendy Clark

Clark used the 17” iTelescope astrograph located at Siding Spring Observatory in Australia to tease out the possible capture of the itinerant moon.

Great job!

What’s in a name? What strange and wonderful discoveries await New Horizons this week? We should get our very first signal back tomorrow night, as New Horizons ‘phones home’ with its message that it survived the journey around 9:10 PM EDT/1:10 UT. Expect this following Wednesday—in the words of New Horizons principal Investigator Alan Stern—to begin “raining data,” as the phase of interpreting and evaluating information begins.

Image credit
The women who power the New Horizons mission to Pluto. Image credit: SwRI/JHUAPL

And there’s more in store, as the New Horizons team will make the decision to maneuver the spacecraft for a rendezvous with a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) next month. Said KBO flyby will occur in the 2019-2020 timeframe, and perhaps, we’ll one day see a Pluto orbiter mission or lander in the decades to come…

Maybe one way journeys to ‘the other Red Planet’ are the wave of the future.’ Pluto One anyone?

Awesome New Radar Images of Asteroid 2004 BL86


New video of 2004 BL86 and its moon

Newly processed images of asteroid 2004 BL86 made during its brush with Earth Monday night reveal fresh details of its lumpy surface and orbiting moon. We’ve learned from both optical and radar data that Alpha, the main body, spins once every 2.6 hours. Beta (the moon) spins more slowly.

The images were made by bouncing radio waves off the surface of the bodies using NASA’s 230-foot-wide (70-meter) Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, Calif.  Radar “pinging” reveals information about the shape, velocity, rotation rate and surface features of close-approaching asteroids. But the resulting images can be confusing to interpret. Why? Because they’re not really photos as we know it.

For one, the moon appears to be revolving perpendicular to the main body which would be very unusual. Most moons orbit their primary approximately in the plane of its equator like Earth’s moon and Jupiter’s four Galilean moons. That’s almost certainly the case with Beta. Radar imagery is assembled from echoes or radio signals returned from the asteroid after bouncing off its surface. Unlike an optical image, we see the asteroid by reflected pulses of radio energy beamed from the antenna. To interpret them, we’ll need to put on our radar glasses.

Bright areas don’t necessarily appear bright to the eye because radar sees the world differently. Metallic asteroids appear much brighter than stony types; rougher surfaces also look brighter than smooth ones.  In a sense these aren’t pictures at all but graphs of the radar pulse’s time delay, Doppler shift and intensity that have been converted into an image.

Another set of images of 2004 BL86 and its moon. Credit: NAIC Observatory / Arecibo Observatory
Another set of images of 2004 BL86 and its moon. Credit: NAIC Observatory / Arecibo Observatory

In the images above, the left to right direction or x-axis in the photo plots the toward and away motion or Doppler shift of the asteroid. You’ll recall that light from an object approaching Earth gets bunched up into shorter wavelengths or blue-shifted compared to red-shifted light given off by an object moving away from Earth. A more rapidly rotating object will appear larger than one spinning slowly. The moon appears elongated probably because it’s rotating more slowly than the Alpha primary.

Meanwhile, the up and down direction or y-axis in the images shows the time delay in the reflected radar pulse on its return trip to the transmitter. Movement up and down indicates a change in 2004 BL86’s distance from the transmitter, and movement left to right indicates rotation. Brightness variations depend on the strength of the returned signal with more radar-reflective areas appearing brighter. The moon appears quite bright because – assuming it’s rotating more slowly – the total signal strength is concentrated in one small area compared to being spread out by the faster-spinning main body.

If that’s not enough to wrap your brain around, consider that any particular point in the image maps to multiple points on the real asteroid. That means no matter how oddly shaped 2004 BL86 is in real life, it appears round or oval in radar images. Only multiple observations over time can help us learn the true shape of the asteroid.

You’ll often notice that radar images of asteroids appear to be lighted from directly above or below. The brighter edge indicates the radar pulse is returning from the leading edge of the object, the region closest to the dish. The further down you go in the image, the farther away that part of the asteroid is from the radar and the darker it appears.

Imagine for a moment an asteroid that’s either not rotating or rotating with one of its poles pointed exactly toward Earth. In radar images it would appear as a vertical line!

If you’re curious to learn more about the nature of radar images, here are two great resources:

How Radio Telescopes Get “Images” of Asteroids by Emily Lakdawalla
* Goldstone Solar System Radar Observatory: Earth-Based Planetary Mission Support and Unique Science Results

News Flash: Asteroid Flying Past Earth Today Has Mini-Moon!

Wonderful news! Asteroid 2004 BL86, which passed closest to Earth today at a distance of 750,000 miles (1.2 million km), has a companion moon. Scientists working with NASA’s 230-foot-wide (70-meter) Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, California, have released the first radar images of the asteroid which show the tiny object in orbit about the main body.

While these are the first images of it, the “signature” of the satellite was seen in light curve data reported earlier by Joseph Pollock (Appalachian State University, North Carolina) and Petr Prave (Ondrejov Observatory, Czech Republic) according to Lance Benner who works with the radar team at Goldstone.

2004 BL86 measures about 1,100 feet (325 meters) across while its moon is approximately 230 feet (70 meters) across. The asteroid made its closest approach today (Jan. 26th) at 10:19 a.m. (CST), however it will peak in brightness this evening around 10 p.m. (4:00 UT) at magnitude +9.0. Unlike some flybys, 2004 BL86 will remain within a few tenths of a magnitude of peak brightness from 6 p.m. tonight (CST) through early tomorrow morning, so don’t miss the chance to see it in your telescope.

Don’t expect to see the diminutive moon visually – the entire system will only appear as a point of light, but I’m sure you’ll agree it’s cool just knowing it’s there.

The double asteroid (90) Antiope and S/2000 (90) 1. The two objects are separated by 171 km, and they perform their celestial dance in 16.5 hours. The adaptive optics observations could, however, never resolve the shape of the individual components as they are too small. Credit: ESO
The double asteroid (90) Antiope and its companion S/2000 (90) 1. The two objects are separated by 106 miles (171 km), and they perform their celestial dance in 16.5 hours. The adaptive optics observations couldn’t resolve the shape of the individual components as they are too small. Credit: ESO

Among near-Earth asteroids, about 16% that are about 655 feet (200 meters) or larger are either binary or triple systems. While that’s not what you’d call common, it’s not unusual either. To date, we know of 240 asteroids with a single moon, 10 triple systems and the sextuple system of Pluto (I realize that’s stretching a bit, since Pluto’s a dwarf planet) – 268 companions total. 52 of those are near-Earth asteroids.

With a resolution of 13 feet (4-meters) per pixel we can at least see the roughness of the the main body’s surface and perhaps imagine craters there. No details are visible on the moon though it does appear elongated. I’m surprised how round the main body is given its small size. An object that tiny doesn’t normally have the gravity required to crush itself into a sphere. Yet another fascinating detail needing our attention.

Of course the main asteroid will get your attention tonight. Please check out our earlier story on 2004 BL86 which includes more details as well as charts to help you track it as it flies across Cancer the Crab tonight. This is the best view we’re going to get of it for the next two centuries.

Comet Finlay Surprise Outburst, Visible in Binoculars … again!

Lost sleep at night, fingers tapping on the keyboard by day. Darn comets are keeping me busy! But of course that’s a good problem. Comet 15P/Finlay, which had been languishing in the western sky at dusk at magnitude +10, has suddenly come to life … for a second time.

Two nights ago, Australian comet observer Michael Mattiazzo took a routine picture of Finlay and discovered it at magnitude +8. Today it’s a magnitude brighter and now joins Comet Lovejoy as the second binocular comet of 2015. Comet-wise, we’ve gone from zero to 60 and the new year’s fewer than 3 weeks old!

Comet 15P/Finlay tonight through Feb. 1. Positions shown for 7 p.m (CST) and stars depicted to magnitude +8. Tonight the comet will be right next to a 6th mag. star in Aquarius.
Comet 15P/Finlay tonight through Feb. 1. Positions shown for 7 p.m (CST) and stars depicted to magnitude +8. Tonight the comet will be right next to a 6th mag. star in Aquarius low in the southwestern sky at nightfall. Mars and Neptune’s position are for Jan. 17th. Click to enlarge. Source: Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

Comet Finlay’s threw its first tantrum last December when it reached binocular visibility (faintly) shortly before Christmas.  Discovered by William Henry Finlay from South Africa on September 26, 1886, the comet circles the Sun every 6.5 years. This time around it reached perihelion on December 27th and spent many nights near the planet Mars low in the western sky. Until the new outburst, the comet had returned to its predicted brightness (~10 magnitude) and departed company with the Red Planet.

Even though photographed under poor conditions on Jan. 17th, Alfons Diepvens' image of Comet Finlay's coma and nuclear region reveals interesting details. Credit: Alfons Diepvens
Even though photographed under poor conditions on Jan. 17th, Belgian amateur astronomer Alfons Diepvens’ image of Comet Finlay’s coma and nuclear region reveals interesting details. Credit: Alfons Diepvens

It’s still low in the west, though not quite so much as in December, in the constellation Aquarius. With an orbit inclined only 6.8° to the ecliptic or plane of the Solar System, you’ll find it chugging eastward across the zodiac at the rate of 1° per night. The best time to view the comet is at the end of evening twilight at nightfall when it’s highest —  20° to 25° above the southwestern horizon.

Comet Lovejoy southwest of the beautiful Pleaides star cluster on January 15th. Credit: Bob King
Comet Lovejoy seen in tandem with the beautiful Pleaides star cluster on January 15th. Click for a finder chart. Credit: Bob King

Right now it’s not far from Lambda Aquarii and will soon glide just south of the well-known asterism called the “Circlet” in Pisces. Currently between 7th and 8th magnitude and showing a bright, condensed center, Comet Finlay is easily visible in 10×50 binoculars. Catch it while you can. These outbursts often fade fairly quickly. While we don’t know its exact cause, what likely happened is that a new fissure opened up on the comet’s surface, exposing fresh ice to sunlight. Rapid vaporization of the new material may be behind the eruption.

While Comet Q2 Lovejoy’s been getting all the attention, Finlay’s back in the game and making mid-January nights all that more enjoyable for sky gazing. Lovejoy is presently passing near the Pleiades star cluster in Taurus. This coming week will be the last dark one before the Moon starts to spoil the view. I hope you’re able to spot both at the next opportunity.

5-degree binocular view of Mars as it approaches Neptune in the next few nights. They'll be in close conjunction on the 19th. Mars shines at about 1st magnitude, Neptune at 8. Stars shown to mag. 9. Source: Chris Marriott's SkyMap software
5-degree binocular view of Mars as it approaches Neptune in the next few nights. They’ll be in close conjunction on the 19th. Mars shines at about 1st magnitude, Neptune at 8. Stars shown to mag. 9. Source: Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

While we’re on the topic, take another look at the finder chart and you’ll see that Mars lies very near Neptune. The two are presently about 2° apart but on Monday Jan. 19th at dusk they’ll be separated by just 12 arc minutes or 1/5 of a degree and easily fit into the same medium-power view of a telescope. Pretty cool – and well worth seeing along with those comets!

Beagle 2: Found on Mars After An 11 Year Hunt

The final chapter in the saga of a wayward Mars lander was finally revealed today, as an international team released images showing the Beagle-2 lander’s final resting place on Mars.

Flashback to Christmas Day, 2003. While most folks gathered ‘round the tree and opened presents, the UK and European Space Agency awaited a gift from space.  The Beagle-2 Mars lander had been released from the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter six days prior, and was coasting towards a perilous landing in Isidis Planitia and was set to phone home.

All was going according to plan, and then… silence.

It’s the worst part of any mission, waiting for a lander to call back and say that it’s safe and sound on the surface of another world. As the hours turned into days, anxious engineers used NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft and the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank to listen for the signal.

Beagle-2 was declared lost a few weeks later on February 6th, 2004.

But now, there’s a final twist to the tale to tell.

Beagle 2
Beagle 2, partially deployed on the Martian surface. Credit and Copyright: HiRISE/NASA/Leicester.

The UK Space Agency, working with ESA and NASA announced today that debris from the landing site had been identified and that indicates — contrary to suspicions — that Beagle-2 did indeed make it to the surface of the Red Planet intact. New images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter released today suggest that not only did Beagle-2 land, but that its airbags did indeed deploy properly and that the dish-shaped 1-meter in diameter spacecraft partially unfolded pocket-watch style after it had bounced to a stop.

“We are very happy to learn that Beagle 2 touched down on Mars,” said ESA’s Director of Science and Robotic Exploration in a recent press release. “The dedication of the various teams in studying high-resolution images in order to find the lander is inspiring.”

So, what went wrong with Beagle-2?

At this point, no further speculation as to what caused the lander to fall silent has been forthcoming, but today’s revelation is sure to rewrite the final saga of Beagle-2.

“Not knowing what happened to Beagle-2 remained a nagging worry,” said ESA’s Mars Express project manager Rudolf Schmidt. “Understanding now that Beagle-2 made it all the way down to the surface is excellent news.”

Speculation swirled across the internet earlier this week as the UK Space Agency and ESA suggested that new information as to the fate of Beagle-2 was forthcoming, over 11 years after the incident. Back in 2004, it was suggested that Beagle-2 had encountered higher levels of dust in the Martian atmosphere than expected, and that this in turn resulted in a failure of the spacecraft’s parachutes. Presumably, the lander then failed to slow down sufficiently and crashed on the surface of Mars, the latest victim of the Great Galactic Ghoul who seems to love dining on human-built spacecraft bound for the Red Planet.

Credit: ESA
An artist’s conception of Beagle-2 fully deployed on Mars. Credit: ESA.

The loss of Beagle-2 wasn’t only a blow to the UK and ESA, but to its principal investigator Colin Pillinger as well. Pillinger was involved in the search for Beagle-2 in later years, and also played a part in the Rosetta mission to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko as well. Unfortunately, Pillinger passed away in May of last year from a brain hemorrhage. A portion of the western rim of Endeavour Crater currently being explored by Opportunity was named Pillinger Point in his honor.

Today’s announcement has triggered a wave of congratulations that the 11-year mystery has been solved. There have even been calls on Twitter and social media to rename the Beagle-2 site Pillinger Station.

“The history of of space exploration is marked by both success and failure,” Said Dr. David Parker, the Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency in a recent press release. “This finding makes the case that Beagle-2 was more of a success than we previously knew and undoubtedly an important step in Europe’s continuing exploration of Mars.”

Click here for the animated .gif version.
Evidence of the successful landing of Beagle-2. Click here for the animated .gif version. Credit: University of Leicester/Beagle 2/NASA/University of Arizona.

Beagle-2 is about 2 metres across unfurled, and came to rest within 5 kilometres of its target location.

There have been false announcements of the discovery of Beagle-2 before. Back in late 2005, a claim was made that the lander had been spotted by Mars Global Surveyor, though later searches came to naught.

“I can imagine the sense of closure that the Beagle-2 team must feel,” Said JPL’s MRO project scientist Richard Zurek in a recent press release. “MRO has helped find safe landing sites on Mars for the Curiosity and Phoenix missions and has searched for missing craft to learn what may have gone wrong. It’s an extremely difficult task.”

MRO entered orbit in March 2006 and carries a 0.5 metre in diameter HiRISE camera capable of resolving objects just 0.3 metres across on the surface of Mars.  The European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter that carried Beagle 2 is also still in operation, along with NASA’s aging Mars Odyssey spacecraft. These were joined in orbit by MAVEN and India’s Mars Orbiter just last year.

All rights reserved Beagle 2.
Beagle-2 encapsulated in the lab. All rights reserved, Beagle-2.

Of course, getting to Mars is tough, and landing is even harder. Mars has just enough atmosphere that you have to deal with it, but it’s so tenuous – 0.6% the surface pressure of Earth’s atmosphere at sea level – That it doesn’t provide a whole lot of usable drag.

To date, only NASA had successfully landed on Mars, and done it seven times – only the Mars Polar Lander failed back in 1999. The Russians fared much worse, with their most successful lander being Mars 3, which sent back only one blurry image before falling silent.

ESA and the Russian Federal Space Agency hope to amend that with the launch of the ExoMars mission next year, slated to land on Mars in 2018.

I remember waiting with millions of other space fans for word back from Beagle 2 on Christmas Day 2003. Think back to what your internet connection was like over 11 years ago, in an era before smart phones, Twitter and Facebook. We’d just come off of the spectacular 2003 Mars opposition season, which provided the orbital geometry ideal for launching a mission to the Red Planet. This window only comes around once every 26 months.

Though Beagle 2 was a stationary lander akin to the Viking and Mars Phoenix missions, it had a robotic arm and a clever battery of experiments, including ones designed to search for life. The signal it was supposed to use to call home was designed by the UK pop rock band Blur, a jingle that never came.

Alas, we’ll have to wait to see what the alien plains around Isidis Planitia actually look like, just 13 degrees north of the Martian equator. But hey, a lingering mystery of the modern age of planetary exploration was solved this week.

Still, we’re now left with a new dilemma. Does this mean we’ll have to write a sequel to our science fiction short story The Hunt for Beagle?

-Read free original science fiction from Dave Dickinson every Friday, including ongoing chapters from The Hunt for Beagle.