Astronomy: The Next Generation

Future Tense
Future Tense

In some respects, the field of astronomy has been a rapidly changing one. New advances in technology have allowed for exploration of new spectral regimes, new methods of image acquisition, new methods of simulation, and more. But in other respects, we’re still doing the same thing we were 100 years ago. We take images, look to see how they’ve changed. We break light into its different colors, looking for emission and absorption. The fact that we can do it faster and to further distances has revolutionized our understanding, but not the basal methodology.

But recently, the field has begun to change. The days of the lone astronomer at the eyepiece are already gone. Data is being taken faster than it can be processed, stored in easily accessible ways, and massive international teams of astronomers work together. At the recent International Astronomers Meeting in Rio de Janeiro, astronomer Ray Norris of Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) discussed these changes, how far they can go, what we might learn, and what we might lose.

Observatories
One of the ways astronomers have long changed the field is by collecting more light, allowing them to peer deeper into space. This has required telescopes with greater light gathering power and subsequently, larger diameters. These larger telescopes also offer the benefit of improved resolution so the benefits are clear. As such, telescopes in the planning stages have names indicative of immense sizes. The ESO’s “Over Whelmingly Large Telescope” (OWL), the “Extremely Large Array” (ELA), and “Square Kilometer Array” (SKA) are all massive telescopes costing billions of dollars and involving resources from numerous nations.

But as sizes soar, so too does the cost. Already, observatories are straining budgets, especially in the wake of a global recession. Norris states, “To build even bigger telescopes in twenty years time will cost a significant fraction of a nation’s wealth, and it is unlikely that any nation, or group of nations, will set a sufficiently high priority on astronomy to fund such an instrument. So astronomy may be reaching the maximum size of telescope that can reasonably be built.”

Thus, instead of the fixation on light gathering power and resolution, Norris suggests that astronomers will need to explore new areas of potential discovery. Historically, major discoveries have been made in this manner. The discovery of Gamma-Ray Bursts occurred when our observational regime was expanded into the high energy range. However, the spectral range is pretty well covered currently, but other domains still have a large potential for exploration. For instance, as CCDs were developed, the exposure time for images were shortened and new classes of variable stars were discovered. Even shorter duration exposures have created the field of asteroseismology. With advances in detector technology, this lower boundary could be pushed even further. On the other end, the stockpiling of images over long times can allow astronomers to explore the history of single objects in greater detail than ever before.

Data Access
In recent years, many of these changes have been pushed forward by large survey programs like the 2 Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS) and the All Sky Automated Survey (ASAS) (just to name two of the numerous large scale surveys). With these large stores of pre-collected data, astronomers are able to access astronomical data in a new way. Instead of proposing telescope time and then hoping their project is approved, astronomers are having increased and unfettered access to data. Norris proposes that, should this trend continue, the next generation of astronomers may do vast amounts of work without even directly visiting an observatory or planning an observing run. Instead, data will be culled from sources like the Virtual Observatory.

Of course, there will still be a need for deeper and more specialized data. In this respect, physical observatories will still see use. Already, much of the data taken from even targeted observing runs is making it into the astronomical public domain. While the teams that design projects still get first pass on data, many observatories release the data for free use after an allotted time. In many cases, this has led to another team picking up the data and discovering something the original team had missed. As Norris puts it, “much astronomical discovery occurs after the data are released to other groups, who are able to add value to the data by combining it with data, models, or ideas which may not have been accessible to the instrument designers.”

As such, Nelson recommends encouraging astronomers to contribute data to this way. Often a research career is built on numbers of publications. However, this runs the risk of punishing those that spend large amounts of time on a single project which only produces a small amount of publication. Instead, Nelson suggests a system by which astronomers would also earn recognition by the amount of data they’ve helped release into the community as this also increases the collective knowledge.

Data Processing
Since there is a clear trend towards automated data taking, it is quite natural that much of the initial data processing can be as well. Before images are suitable for astronomical research, the images must be cleaned for noise and calibrated. Many techniques require further processing that is often tedious. I myself have experienced this as much of a ten week summer internship I attended, involved the repetitive task of fitting profiles to the point-spread function of stars for dozens of images, and then manually rejecting stars that were flawed in some way (such as being too near the edge of the frame and partially chopped off).

While this is often a valuable experience that teaches budding astronomers the reasoning behind processes, it can certainly be expedited by automated routines. Indeed, many techniques astronomers use for these tasks are ones they learned early in their careers and may well be out of date. As such, automated processing routines could be programmed to employ the current best practices to allow for the best possible data.

But this method is not without its own perils. In such an instance, new discoveries may be passed up. Significantly unusual results may be interpreted by an algorithm as a flaw in the instrumentation or a gamma ray strike and rejected instead of identified as a novel event that warrants further consideration. Additionally, image processing techniques can still contain artifacts from the techniques themselves. Should astronomers not be at least somewhat familiar with the techniques and their pitfalls, they may interpret artificial results as a discovery.

Data Mining
With the vast increase in data being generated, astronomers will need new tools to explore it. Already, there has been efforts to tag data with appropriate identifiers with programs like Galaxy Zoo. Once such data is processed and sorted, astronomers will quickly be able to compare objects of interest at their computers whereas previously observing runs would be planned. As Norris explains, “The expertise that now goes into planning an observation will instead be devoted to planning a foray into the databases.” During my undergraduate coursework (ending 2008, so still recent), astronomy majors were only required to take a single course in computer programming. If Norris’ predictions are correct, the courses students like me took in observational techniques (which still contained some work involving film photography), will likely be replaced with more programming as well as database administration.

Once organized, astronomers will be able to quickly compare populations of objects on scales never before seen. Additionally, by easily accessing observations from multiple wavelength regimes they will be able to get a more comprehensive understanding of objects. Currently, astronomers tend to concentrate in one or two ranges of spectra. But with access to so much more data, this will force astronomers to diversify further or work collaboratively.

Conclusions
With all the potential for advancement, Norris concludes that we may be entering a new Golden Age of astronomy. Discoveries will come faster than ever since data is so readily available. He speculates that PhD candidates will be doing cutting edge research shortly after beginning their programs. I question why advanced undergraduates and informed laymen wouldn’t as well.

Yet for all the possibilities, the easy access to data will attract the crackpots too. Already, incompetent frauds swarm journals looking for quotes to mine. How much worse will it be when they can point to the source material and their bizarre analysis to justify their nonsense? To combat this, astronomers (as all scientists) will need to improve their public outreach programs and prepare the public for the discoveries to come.

The Moon in Stunning Wide Angle

Marius Hills region on the Moon, from LRO's Wide Angle Camera.

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Here’s a look at the Moon in a way we’ve never quite seen it before: a close up, but wide angle view. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter camera actually consists of three cameras: there are two narrow-angle cameras which make high-resolution, black-and-white images of the surface, with resolutions down to 1 meter (about 3.3 feet). A third, a wide-angle camera (WAC), takes color and ultraviolet images over the complete lunar surface at 100-meter (almost 330-foot) resolution. However, the raw wide-angle images are somewhat distorted by the camera, but Maurice Collins, a Moon enthusiast from New Zealand, found that putting several images together in a mosaic removes a lot of the distortions and produces a much clearer image. The results are nothing short of stunning; here are a few example of Maurice’s handiwork, including this jaw-dropping image of the Marius Hills region of the Moon. Click on any of these images for a larger version on Maurice’s website, Moon Science

Copernicus Crater on the Moon, captured by LROC's wide angle camera. Image processing by Maurice Collins

Maurice told me that he has been studying the Moon for about ten years now, and he does telescopic imaging of the Moon from his backyard Palmerston North, New Zealand as well as study the various spacecraft data. “I found out how to process the WAC images from Rick Evans (his website is here ) for the Octave processing method, and I also use a tool developed by Jim Mosher for another quicker technique,” Maurice said. Several of Maurice’s images have been featured on the Lunar Photo of the Day website.

Aristarchus Crater, as seen by LROC's wide angle camera. Image processing by Maurice Collins

Other areas of lunar imaging work he has done is using the Lunar Terminator Visualization Tool (LTVT) to study the lunar topography from the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) digital elevation model laser altimeter data.

“Using a previous DEM from the Kaguya spacecraft I discovered a new large (630km long) mountain ridge radial to the Imbrium basin which I have nicknamed “Shannen Ridge” after my 9 year old daughter,” he said. See the image of Shannen Ridge here.

Maurice said he is usually out every clear night imaging or observing the Moon with his telescope. Thanks to Maurice for his wonderful work, and for allowing us at Universe Today to post some of the images. Check out his complete cache of WAC mosaics at his website.

hat tip: Stu Atkinson!

Follow-up Studies on June 3rd Jupiter Impact

Color image of impact on Jupiter on June 3, 2010. Credit: Anthony Wesley

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Poor Jupiter just can’t seem to catch a break. Ever since 1994, when our largest planet was hit by Comet Shoemaker-Levy, detections of impacts on Jupiter have occurred with increasing regularity. Most recently, an impact was witnessed on August 20. On June 3rd of 2010, (coincidentally the same day pictures from Hubble were released from a 2009 impact) Jupiter was hit yet again. Shortly after the June 3rd impact, several other telescopes joined the observing.

A paper to appear in the October issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters discusses the science that has been gained from these observations.

The June 3rd impact was novel in several respects. It was the first unexpected impact that was reported from two independent locations simultaneously. Both discoverers were observing Jupiter with aims of engaging in a bit of astrophotography. Their cameras were both set to take a series of quick images, each lasting a fifth to a tenth of a second. This short time duration is the first time astronomers have had the ability to recreate the light curve for the meteor. Additionally, both observers were using different filters (one red and one blue) allowing for exploration of the color distribution.

Analysis of the light curve revealed that the flash lasted nearly two seconds and was not symmetric; The decay in brightness occurred faster than the increase at onset. Additionally, the curve showed several distinct “bumps” which indicated a flickering that is commonly seen on meteors on Earth.

The light released in the burning up of the object was used to estimate the total energy-released and in turn the mass of the object.  The total energy released was estimated to be between roughly (1.0–4.0) × 1015 Joules (or 250–1000 kilotons).

Follow-up observations from Hubble three days later revealed no scars from the impact. In the July 2009 impact, a hole punched in the clouds remained for several days. This indicated the object in the June 3 impact was considerably smaller and burned up before it was able to reach the visible cloud decks.

Observations intended to find debris came up empty. Infrared observations showed that no thermal signature was left even as little as 18 hours following the discovery.

Assuming that the object was an asteroid with a relative speed of ~60 km/sec and a density of ~2 g/cm3, the team estimated the size of the object to be between 8 and 13 meters, similar to the size of the two asteroids that recently passed Earth. This represents the smallest meteor yet observed on Jupiter. An object of similar size was estimated to be responsible for the impact on Earth in 1994 near the Marshall Islands. Estimates “predict objects of this size to collide with our planet every 6–15 years” with significantly higher rates on Jupiter ranging from one to one hundred such events annually.

Clearly, amateur observations led to some fantastic science. Modest telescopes, “in the range 15–20 cm in diameter equipped with webcams and video recorders” can easily allow for excellent coverage of Jupiter and continued observation could help in determining the impact rate and lead to a better understanding of the population of such small bodies in the outer solar system.

Dragon Drop Tests and Heat1X-Tycho Brahe Set to Launch – SpacePod 2010.08.24

Home made rockets launched from home made submarines next to dragon wings floating in the ocean on your SpacePod for August 24th, 2010

Before we begin I just wanted to give a shout out to our new viewers on both Space.com and Universe Today. Hopefully you like what you’ll see and you’ll stick around for a while, check out some of our other videos and join us for our live weekly show all about space. For today though, lets start over the Pacific Ocean where SpaceX tested the Dragon’s parachute deployment system on August 12th, 2010.
Continue reading “Dragon Drop Tests and Heat1X-Tycho Brahe Set to Launch – SpacePod 2010.08.24”

Tumbling Boulders Leave Trails on the Moon

mages from Moon Zoo showing trails from tumbling boulders in the Montes Alpes/Vallis Alpes region on the Moon. Credit: NASA/LRO/Moon Zoo.

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There’s probably a great story in this image, if only someone was there to witness it as it happened! This is an image from Moon Zoo, the citizen science project from the Zooniverse that asks people to look at images from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and search for craters, boulders and more. And often, the Zooites find some very interesting features on the Moon, like this one and the ones below that include tracks from rolling, bounding, tumbling and sometimes bouncing boulders. Then the task for the scientists is to figure out what actually happened to get these boulders moving — was it an impact, are the boulder on the bottom of a hill, or was it some other unknown catalyst? As Zooniverse founder Chris Lintott says, “The Moon has its own landscape that is really quite dramatic, so it’s a world well worth exploring.”

LRO image from Moon Zoo.

Why look for tumbling boulders? Moon Zoo scientist Dr. Katie Joy gave this explanation:

“One of the main reasons we are asking Moon Zoo users to search for scars left behind by tumbling boulders is to help support future lunar exploration initiatives. Boulders that have rolled down hillsides from crater walls, or massifs like the Apollo 17 landing site, provide samples of geologic units that may be high up a hillside and thus difficult to access otherwise by a rover or a manned crew vehicle. If mission planning can include traverses to boulders that have rolled down hills, and we can track these boulders back up to the part of hillside from where they have originated, it provides a neat sampling strategy to accessing more geological units than would have been possible otherwise… Thus we hope to use Moon Zoo user data to produce a map of known boulder tracks (and terminal boulders) across the Moon.”

LRO image from Moon Zoo of boulder tracks.

See more unique boulder tracks images in the Moon Zoo forum thread on boulders.

If you want to join in on the fun of looking for mysteries on the Moon, check out Moon Zoo, or the Zooniverse for more citizen science projects where you can get involved in helping scientists do real science.

[email protected] Citizen Scientists Discover Weird Pulsar

Screenshot of [email protected] Image courtesty of B. Knispel of Albert Einstein Institute

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Hooray for citizen scientists! The [email protected] project has discovered a unusual pulsar approximately 17,000 light-years away in the constellation Vulpecula. The project works by people “donating” idle time on their home computers. This is the first deep-space discovery by [email protected], and the finding is credited to Chris and Helen Colvin, from Ames, Iowa in the US, and Daniel Gebhardt of Universitat Mainz, Musikinformatik,Germany.

The newly discovered pulsar, PSR J2007+2722, is an isolated neutron star that rotates 41 times per second and has an unusually low magnetic field.

Jim Cordes, Cornell professor of astronomy, said the object is particularly interesting because it is likely a recycled pulsar: a neutron star that once had a companion star from which it acquired mass; but whose companion exploded, kicking it free.

Unlike most pulsars that spin as quickly and steadily, PSR J2007+2722 sits alone in space, and has no orbiting companion star. However, the scientists say they can not rule out that it may be a young pulsar born with an lower-than-usual magnetic field.

“We think there should be more of these disrupted binary pulsars, but there haven’t been that many found,” said Cordes. “No matter what else we find out about it, this pulsar is bound to be extremely interesting for understanding the basic physics of neutron stars and how they form.”

The discovery demonstrates the power of the network used to collect and sort through vast amounts of data, Cordes said.

[email protected] was originally organized to find gravitational waves — ripples in space-time — using the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO). In 2009, data from the Arecibo Observatory were included in the processing.

Chris and Helen Colvin who were credited with discovering a new pulsar. Image courtesy Chris Colvin.

[email protected] is based at the Center for Gravitation and Cosmology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics (Albert Einstein Institute, or AEI) in
Hannover, Germany. About one-third of [email protected]’s computing capacity is used to search Arecibo data.

[email protected] volunteer Daniel Gebhardt from Germany. Image couresty of Gebhardt.


“This is a thrilling moment for [email protected] and our volunteers. It proves that public participation can discover new things in our universe,” said Bruce Allen, leader of the [email protected] project, AEI director and adjunct professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “I hope it inspires more people to join us to help find other secrets hidden in the data.”

Gebhardt and the Colvins will receive plaques noting their discovery, and all plan to stay involved.

For information on how you can get involved in the project, see the [email protected] website.

Sources: Cornell University, ScienceExpress.

On a related note, check out these Albert Einstein quotes.

Click on Hubble: Galaxy Zoo Now Includes HST Images

The Hubble Space Telescope is 20 years old on Saturday and, to mark this anniversary, all the world’s space and astronomy fans have a chance to become part of the Hubble team.

As part of the birthday celebrations NASA’s Space Telescope Science Institute and the online astronomy project Galaxy Zoo are making some 200,000 Hubble images of galaxies available to the public at Galaxy Zoo (www.galaxyzoo.org). They hope that volunteers looking for their own favorite galaxies will join forces to give the venerable telescope a present – classifications of each galaxy which will help astronomers understand how the Universe we see around us formed.

But there’s more to it than that; remember Hanny and the Voorwerp? The Green Peas? Mitch’s mysterious star? For every unexpected Galaxy Zoo discovery there are likely a dozen Hubble Zoo ones.

“The large surveys that Hubble has completed allow us to trace the Universe’s evolution better than ever before,” said University of Nottingham astronomer and Galaxy Zoo team member Dr. Steven Bamford. “The vast majority of these galaxies will never have been viewed by anyone, and yet we need human intuition to make the most of what they are telling us”.

More than 250,000 people have already contributed to Galaxy Zoo since its launch in 2007, but so far they have been looking only at the ‘local’ Universe, up to a hundred million or so light-years away. The galaxies in HubbleZoo are from some of the big surveys, such as GOODS, and the images were processed by the Galaxy Zoo team alongside Roger Griffith at JPL and the Space Telescope Science Institute (see this article, from my Universe Today series on the Hubble, for more details on GOODS).

“Hubble will enable us to look back in time, to the era when many of the galaxies we see today were forming,” said Dr. Chris Lintott of Oxford University, Galaxy Zoo principal investigator. “As a kid I always wanted a time machine for my birthday, but this is the next best thing!”

“We never dreamt that people would find so many fascinating objects in the original Galaxy Zoo,” said Yale University astronomer Dr. Kevin Schawinski. “Who knows what’s hiding in the Hubble images?” Lintott added: “As we recovered from the launch of the original Galaxy Zoo, we knew we’d want to have a look at Hubble. Now we realize the images are better and the galaxies weirder than we ever thought they would be.”

And how will you, dear zooite-to-be, contribute, and find a hidden gem among the Hubble galaxies? Once you log in, you will asked to answer simple questions about what you are seeing, for example, identifying the number of spiral arms visible, or spotting galaxies in the process of merging. And if you spot something odd, you can bring it to the attention of other zooites, and the Zoo astronomers.

Arp147 (Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Livio (STScI))

“Every galaxy is special in its own way,” said Stuart Lynn of Oxford University, Galaxy Zoo team member, “but some are worthy of individual attention. Anyone combing through the data using our site could make a spectacular discovery, and that would be the best birthday present of all.”

Galaxy SDSS J100213.52+020645.9 (SDSS)

Galaxy SDSS J100213.52+020645.9 (Hubble)

Sources: NASA, HubbleSite, Oxford University, Galaxy Zoo Forum The two images above, of a galaxy called SDSS J100213.52+020645.9, highlight the sharpness and depth of the Hubble’s images (the SDSS telescope and the Hubble have primary mirrors of approximately the same diameter).

Mitch’s Mystery Star, Curiouser and Curiouser

Mitch's Star; full caption below (Credit: Keel/PSS/SARA)

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“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not Eureka! (I found it!) but rather, ‘hmm… that’s funny…'” (Isaac Asimov)

A few short years ago, Zooite Hanny van Arkel discovered Hanny’s Voorwerp in an SDSS image of a galaxy (“What’s the blue stuff below? Anyone?”), and a new term entered astronomers’ lexicon (“voorwerpje”).

Very late last year, Zooite mitch too had a ‘that’s funny…’ moment, over a spectrum (yes, you read that right, a spectrum!).

Now neither Hanny nor mitch have PhDs in astronomy …

Mitch's Mystery Star (SDSS, Galaxy Zoo)


But I digress; what, exactly, did mitch discover? Judge for yourself; here’s the spectrum of the star in question (it goes by the instantly recognizable name 587739406764540066):
Spectrum of Mitch's Mysterious Star (SDSS)

“I asked a couple of white-dwarf aficionados, and neither recalls seeing any star with these features (nor does Jim Kaler, who wrote the book on stellar spectra),” Bill Keel, a Zooite Astronomer known as NGC3314 wrote, kicking off a flurry of forum posts, and a most interesting discussion!

“Can we rule out something along the line of sight, possibly a cold molecular cloud?” EigenState wrote; “If both stars are moving SE (towards the bottom left corner), could Mitch’s star (square) be affected by debris in the trail of the bright red star (triangle)? I am thinking of the trail left by Mira. So the spectrum would be white dwarf shining through cooled red star debris?” said Budgieye. NGC3314 continued “It can’t be like our current Oort Cloud since we don’t see local absorption from our own in front of lots of stars near the ecliptic plane. To show up this strongly, it would then have to be either much denser or physical much smaller. This just in – this may be the most extreme known example of a DZ white dwarf, which have surface metals. White dwarfs aren’t supposed to, because their intense surface gravity will generally sort atmospheric atoms by density, so this has been suggested (with some theoretical backing) to result from accretion either from circumstellar or interstellar material (so it could be at the star’s surface but representing material formerly in a surrounding disk). Watch this space…”

Then, two weeks after mitch’s discovery, Patrick Dufour, of the Université de Montréal, joined in “Hi everyone, I have known this objects for many years. I have done fits almost 5 years ago but just never took time to publish it. Will do it in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, enjoy this preliminary analysis… The abundances are very similar to G165-7, the magnetic DZ, but it’s a bit cooler (explaining the strength of the features).” Patrick, as you might have guessed from this, is an astronomer with specific expertise in white dwarfs; in fact the abstract to his PhD thesis begins with these words “The goal of this thesis is to accurately determine the atmospheric parameters of a large sample of cool helium-rich white dwarfs in order to improve our understanding of the spectral evolution of these objects. Specifically, we study stars showing traces of carbon (DQ spectral type) and metals (DZ spectral type) in their optical spectrum.”

Somehow yet another astronomer, Fergal Mullally heard about mitch’s mystery star and joined in too “Many other WDs with strong metal absorption lines are surrounded by a cloud of accretable material. This makes sense because the metals quickly sink below the surface (as mentioned by NGC3314). In some cases, metals are only visible for a few weeks before they are sink too deep to be seen. The disks are exciting, not only because they can be so young, but their composition suggests we might be looking at the remains of an asteroid belt (see http://arxiv.org/abs/0708.0198).” To which Patrick added “Mitch’s Mystery Star is a cool (~4000-5000 K) helium rich white dwarf with traces of metals (abundances similar to G165-7). The metals most probably originate from a tidally disrupted asteroid or minor planet that formed a disk around the star.”

So, mitch’s mystery star is just a rather weird kind of DZ star, and DZs are just unusual white dwarfs?

Yes … and no. “The asymmetrical line near 5000 is almost certainly MgH. As for the one at 6100, I am open to suggestion. I have never seen it anywhere else. For G165-7, the splitting is Zeeman. But the broadening is van der Waals by neutral helium. No splitting is observed in this star (and I took a really good spectra at MMT a few years ago to be sure).” Patrick again; so what is the mysterious asymmetrical line at 6100 Å?

Two more weeks passed, and a possible reason for Fergal’s interest emerges, in a post by NGC3314 “While we wait to see how Patrick’s new calculation shakes out, here’s an interesting new manuscript he was involved with, that points to likewise interesting things about the DZ stars. [] Wow. White-dwarf spectra as tombstones for planetary systems… wonder how the system stayed close enough to end up on the white-dwarf atmosphere all through the red-giant phases? The binary systems we can see look awfully far apart to have had helpful dynamical effects for this.” (in case you didn’t read up on Fergal, he’s very keen on exoplanets and ET).

Curiouser and curiouser

Then, in February, a tweet: “At campus observatory, seeing whether we can measure orbital motion between Mitch’s star and its K-dwarf companion.” The tale is becoming curiouser and curiouser (exoplanets in binary star systems? If life had evolved on a planet in orbit around the star which later went red giant then white dwarf, could it have somehow survived and landed on a planet in orbit around the K-dwarf companion?)

I’ll let NGC3314 have the final word: “This furnishes one more example of how the wide interest in Galaxy Zoo allows things once unthinkable – during the SDSS, the whole analysis plan never conceived that every bright galaxy in the survey, and every one of the million or so spectra would actually be examined by a human being.”

Oh, and the Asimov quote seems to be an urban myth (if any reader knows when, and where, Asimov actually said, or wrote, those words …).

Source: Galaxy Zoo Forum thread Mitch’s Mystery Star
Full caption for image at the top of this article (Credit: Bill Keel):
I had a look with the SARA 1m telescope in BVR filters last week, to check for obvious variability. Pending more exact measurements, it’s about as bright as it was in the SDSS images and the older Palomar plates. As SIMBAD shows, this is known as a star of fairly high proper motion (and that’s about all). You can see this when I register the original red-light Palomar photograph to the image from last week, a time span of almost 59 years. The attached picture compares red-light data from the original Palomar Schmidt sky survey in early 1951, the second-epoch Palomar survey around 1990, and SARA on Jan. 7, 2010. You can also see that the bright red star to the southeast has almost exactly the same (large) proper motion.

This Week’s astro-ph Preprints: Jean Tate’s Best Pick

Examples of ring objects (Mizuno et al./Spitzer)

It goes by the super-catchy (not!) title “A Catalog of MIPSGAL Disk and Ring Sources”. I chose it, over 213 competitors, because it’s pure astronomy, and because it’s something you don’t need a PhD to be able to do, or even a BSc.

Oh, and also because Don Mizuno and co-authors may have found two, quite local, spiral galaxies that no one has ever seen before!

Some quick background: arXiv has been going for several years now, and provides preprints, on the web, of papers “in the fields of physics, mathematics, non-linear science, computer science, quantitative biology and statistics”. It’s owned, operated and funded by Cornell University. astro-ph is the collection of preprints classified as astro physics; the “recent” category in astro-ph is the new preprints submitted in the last week.

When I have any, one of my favorite spare-time activities is browsing astro-ph (Hey, I did say, in my profile, that I am hooked on astronomy!)

Briefly, what Mizuno and his co-authors did was get hold of some of the images from Spitzer (something that anyone can do, provided their internet connection has enough bandwidth), and eyeball them, looking for things which look like disks and rings. Having found over 400 of them, they did what the human brain does superbly well: they grouped them by similarity of appearance, and gave the groups names. They then checked out other images – from different parts of Spitzer’s archive, and from IRAS – and checked to see how many had already been cataloged.

And what did they find? Well, first, that most of the objects they found had not been cataloged before, and certainly not given definite classifications! Many, perhaps most, of the new objects are planetary nebulae, and their findings may help address a long-standing puzzle in this part of astronomy.

MGE314.2378+00.9793 (Mizuno et al./Spitzer)
MGE351.2381-00.0145 (Mizuno et al./Spitzer)

But they also may have found two local spiral galaxies, which had not been noticed before because they are obscured by the gas-and-dust clouds in the Milky Way plane. How cool is that!

Here’s the ‘credits’ section of the preprint: “This work is based on observations made with the Spitzer Space Telescope, which is operated by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology under a contract with NASA. Support for this work was provided by NASA in part through an award issued by JPL/Caltech. This research made use of the SIMBAD database and the Vizier catalog access tool, operated by the Centre de Donnees Astronomique de Strasbourg. This research has also made use of NASA’s Astrophysics Data System Bibliographic Services.”

And here’s the preprint itself: arXiv:1002.4221 A Catalog of MIPSGAL Disk and Ring Sources; D.R. Mizuno(1), K. E. Kraemer(2), N. Flagey(3), N. Billot(4), S. Shenoy(5), R. Paladini(3), E. Ryan(6), A. Noriega-Crespo(3), S. J. Carey(3). ((1) Institute for Scientific Research, (2) Air Force Research Laboratory, (3) Spitzer Science Center, (4) NASA Herschel Science Center, (5) Ames Research Center, (6) University of Minnesota)

PS, going over the Astronomy Cast episode How to be Taken Seriously by Scientists is what motivated me to pick this preprint (however, I must tell you, in all honesty, that there are at least ten other preprints that are equally pickable).

New Citizen Science Opportunity: Solar Storm Watch

A Coronal Mass Ejection. Credit: Solar Storm Watch

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Sun-worshiper alert! Now you can have the chance to help scientists spot and track solar storms and be involved in the latest solar research. The ‘hottest’ new Citizen Science project from the “Zooniverse” is Solar Storm Watch. Volunteers can spot storms and track their progress as they hurtle across space towards our planet. Your “clicks” and input will help solar scientists better understand these potentially dangerous storms and help to forecast their arrival time at Earth. “The more people looking at our data, the more discoveries we will make,” said Dr. Chris Davis, Project Scientist with the STEREO mission. “We encourage everyone to track these spectacular storms through space. These storms are a potential radiation hazard for spacecraft and astronauts alike and together we hope to provide advanced warning of their arrival at Earth.”

Solar Storm Watch has been in Beta testing for about two months, but is now officially open for business. “It’s been wonderful to watch the team get ready for a flood of data,” said Chris Lintott, one of the founders of the original Galaxy Zoo, and now Zooniverse — new citizen science projects that that use the Galaxy Zoo model — of which Solar Storm Watch is a part. ” I’m sure there are discoveries there already.”

“I’ve been sitting at my desk watching the results roll in and there are plenty of CMEs that just need a few more clicks,” said Arfon Smith from Oxford University, one of the developers of Zooniverse, who has helped solar astronomers at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich integrate their science projects into the Galaxy Zoo model.

STEREO spacecraft. Credit: NASA

The project uses real data from NASA’s STEREO spacecraft, a pair of satellites in orbit around the Sun which give scientists a constant eye on the ever-changing solar surface. STEREO’s two wide-field instruments, the Heliospheric Imagers provide Solar Stormwatch with its data. Each imager has two cameras helping STEREO stare across the 150 million kilometers from the Earth to the Sun.

“The Solar Stormwatch website has a game-like feel without losing any of the science,” said Julia Wilkinson, Solar Stormwatch volunteer. “I can click away identifying features and watch solar storms head towards Earth on the video clips and learn about solar science at the same time. It’s fun, it’s addictive, it’s educational and you get to contribute to real astronomy research without being an expert in astrophysics … The fact that any Solar Stormwatch volunteer could make a brand new discovery about our neighboring star is very cool indeed. All you need is a computer and an interest in finding out more about what the sun is really like. Solar astronomy has never been easier!”

Solar Storm Watch has made their project very interactive with social media, as you can share your discoveries on the user forum and Flickr, as well as follow the space weather forecast on Twitter. SSW also has a blog to shre the latest news and challenges.

To participate, go to the Solar Storm Watch website. You can get a “Mission Briefing”, or watch informative videos on why the solar science community needs you!

Sources: Royal Observatory, Zooniverse