Weekly SkyWatcher’s Forecast – March 12-18, 2012

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Greetings, fellow SkyWatchers! What an awesome display of planets! Please take the time to walk outdoors just after skydark – regardless of where you live – and enjoy the bright display of Venus and Jupiter! However, this isn’t the only planetary action going on this week… Mars and M96 pair up, as well as Uranus and the Moon. There’s even a Southern Hemisphere meteor shower to enjoy! Pretty exciting, huh? Join the party by getting out your binoculars or telescopes and meet me for more in the backyard…

Monday, March 12 – No. That’s not the “headlights” of a UFO on the western horizon tonight… It’s a very cool pairing of Venus and Jupiter! It’s not often you see the two visually brightest planets making a close visual pass at each other and tonight you’ll spot the inner planet to the south and the outer planet to the north. This would make a great photo opportunity! Why not consider adding something interesting to your picture like a scenic building, tree, or even a person? Watch in the days ahead as Jupiter appears to stay in the same spot at the same time, yet Venus will climb higher.

Tonight let’s return again to NGC 2362 and start at the cluster’s north-northeast corner to have a look at a single, unusual star – UW Canis Majoris. At magnitude 4.9, this super-giant spectroscopic binary is one of the most massive and luminous in our galaxy. Its two stars are separated by only 27 million kilometers (17 million miles) and revolve around each other at a frenzied pace – in less than four and a half days. This speed means the stars themselves are flattened and would appear to be almost egg-shaped. The primary itself is shedding material that’s being collected by the secondary star.

Now drop southwest of NGC 2362 for another open cluster – NGC 2354 (Right Ascension: 7 : 14.3 – Declination: -25 : 44). While at best this will appear as a small, hazy patch to binoculars, NGC 2354 is actually a rich galactic cluster containing around 60 metal-poor members. As aperture and magnification increase, the cluster shows two delightful circle-like structures of stars, similar to a figure 8. Be sure to make a note… You’ve captured another Herschel 400 object!

Tuesday, March 13 – On this day in 1781, Uranus was discovered by William Herschel. Also on this day, in 1855, Percival Lowell was born in Boston. Educated at Harvard, Lowell went on to found the observatory which bears his name in Flagstaff, Arizona, and spent a lifetime studying Mars. During the early morning hours, you can honor Lowell by seeing Mars yourself – it’s best viewed when as high a possible on the ecliptic. While there won’t be a great many details, think of how many strides have been made since Lowell’s time and how advanced our knowledge of Mars has become!

Tonight let’s hop about four fingerwidths east-northeast of Sirius. Look for 5th magnitude SAO 152641 to guide you to a faint patch of stars in binoculars and a superb cluster in a telescope – NGC 2360 (Right Ascension: 7 : 17.8 – Declination: -15 : 37). Comprised of around eighty 10th magnitude and fainter stars, this particular cluster will look like a handful of diamond dust scattered on the sky. Discovered by Caroline Herschel in 1783, this intermediate-aged galactic cluster is home to red giants and heavy in metal abundance. Mark your notes, because not only is this a Herschel object, but is known as Caldwell 58 as well!

Wednesday, March 14 – Today is the birthday of Albert Einstein. Born in 1879, Einstein was one of the finest minds of our times. He developed the theory of gravity in terms of spacetime curvature – dependent on the energy density. Winner of the 1921 Physics Nobel prize, Einstein’s work on the photoelectric effect is the basis of modern light detectors.

Tonight let’s hop about a fistwidth north of bright Eta Canis Majoris and have a look at a “double cluster” – NGC 2383 (Right Ascension: 7 : 24.8 – Declination: -20 : 56) and NGC 2384 (Right Ascension: 7 : 25.1 – Declination: -21 : 02). Just showing in binoculars as a faint patch, this pair will begin resolution with larger scopes. Studied photometrically, it would appear these fairly young clusters have contaminated each other by sharing stars – which has also occurred in some clusters located in the Magellanic Clouds. Enjoy this unusual collection of stars…

Thursday, March 15 – Today celebrates the birth of Nicolas Lacaille. Born in 1713, Lacaille’s measurements confirmed the Earth’s equatorial bulge. He also named fourteen southern constellations. To honor Lacaille tonight, let’s begin some explorations in a constellation he named – Puppis!

For SkyWatchers living in high northern latitudes, you’ll never see all of this constellation, but there will be some things for you to explore, as well as a great deal for our friends in the southern hemisphere. The first is a Herschel object that lies directly on the galactic equator around five degrees north-northwest of Xi.

NGC 2421 (Right Ascension: 7 :36.3 – Declination: -20 : 37) is a magnitude 8.3 open cluster that will look like an exquisitely tiny “Brocchi’s Cluster” in binoculars and begin good resolution of its 50 or so members to an intermediate telescope, in an arrowhead-shaped pattern. It’s bright, it’s fairly easy to find, and it’s a great open cluster to add to your challenge study lists!

If you’re looking for a curiosity, then look no further than Leo and Mars. Tonight the happy red planet is situated just to the east of Messier 96 (Right Ascension: 10 : 46.8 – Declination: +11 : 49)! Enjoy celestial mechanics over the next few nights as Mars gently changes its position in relation with this distant galaxy… and gets much closer!

Friday, March 16 – On this day in 1926, Robert Goddard launched the first liquid-fuel rocket. But he was first noticed in 1907 when a cloud of smoke issued from a powder rocket fired in the basement of the physics building in Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Needless to say, the school took an interest in the work of this shy student. Thankfully they did not expel him, and thus began his lifetime of work in rocket science. Goddard was also the first to realize the full implications of rocketry for missiles and space flight, and his lifetime of work was dedicated to bringing this vision to realization. While most of what he did went unrecognized for many years, tonight we celebrate the name of Robert H. Goddard. This first flight may have gone only 12 meters, but forty years later on the date of his birth, Gemini 8 was launched, carrying Neil Armstrong and David Scott into orbit!

Let’s begin our observing evening with Mars. While you may have been keeping track of its position, did you know that it’s less than a degree away from a Messier object tonight? That’s right! You’ll find the dusty red planet just to the north of M96 (Right Ascension: 10 : 46.8 – Declination: +11 : 49).

Tonight we’ll pick up a challenge cluster and a planetary nebula on the Herschel list by returning to NGC 2421 and hopping about a fingerwidth northeast for NGC 2432 (Right Ascension: 7 : 40.9 – Declination: -19 : 05). This small, loose open cluster is rather dim and contains around 20 or so faint members shaped like the letter B. About another degree northeast is NGC 2440 – an elongated, small 11th magnitude planetary nebula. Look for its central star to cause a brightening and up the magnifying power to reveal it.

While out, be on watch for the Corona-Australids meteor shower. While the fall rate is low – 5 to 7 per hour – our friends in the southern hemisphere might stand a chance with this one!

Saturday, March 17 – On this day in 1958, the first solar-powered spacecraft was launched. Named Vanguard 1, it was an engineering test satellite. From its orbital position, the data taken from its transmission helped to redefine the true shape of the Earth.

Tonight let’s return to Xi Puppis and head less than a fingerwidth east-northeast for Herschel study NGC 2482 (Right Ascension: 7 : 54.9 – Declination: -24 : 18). At magnitude 7, this small fuzzy spot in binoculars will resolve into around two dozen stars to the telescope. Look for the diagonal chain of stars along its edge.

Now let’s have a look at an open cluster easily located in northeastern Orion. This 5.9 magnitude scattered group of stars may have been first observed by Giovanni Batista Hodierna in the mid-17th century. While bright enough to have been a Messier object, William Herschel added it to his log of discoveries on October 15, 1784, as H VIII.24. Of the 30 known stars associated with this 3,600 light-year distant group, the brightest is 50 million years old. A half-dozen of the cluster’s very brightest members can be seen in small scopes at mid-range powers. Look for NGC 2169 (Right Ascension: 6 : 08.4 – Declination: +13 : 57) slightly less than a fist width north-northeast of Betelguese and slightly south of Xi and Nu Orionis.

Sunday, March 18 – Although you can’t see it with just your eyes, Uranus is less than a degree from the Moon this morning. For some areas this could be an occultation, so be sure to check IOTA information!

Today in 1965, the first ever spacewalk was performed by Alexei Leonov onboard the Soviet Voskhod spacecraft. The “walk” only lasted around 20 minutes and Alexei had problems in re-entering the spacecraft because his space suit had enlarged slightly. Imagine his fear as he had to let air leak out of his space suit in order to squeeze back inside. When they landed off target in the heavily forested Ural Mountains, the crew of two had to spend the night in the woods surrounded by wolves. It took over twenty-four hours before they were located and workers had to chop their way through the forest and recover them on skis. Brave men!

Tonight let’s honor them by studying a small area which contains not only three Herschel objects – but two Messiers as well – M46 and M47. You’ll find them less than a handspan east of Sirius and about a fistwidth north of Xi Puppis.

The brighter of the two clusters is M47 (Right Ascension: 7 : 36.6 – Declination: -14 : 30) and at 1600 light-years away, it’s a glorious object for binoculars. It is filled with mixed magnitude stars that resolve fully to aperture with the double Struve 1211 near its center. While M47 is in itself a Herschel object, look just slightly north (about a field of view) to pick up another cluster which borders it. At magnitude 6.7, NGC 2423 isn’t as grand, but it contains more than two dozen fairly compressed faint stars with a lovely golden binary at its center.

Now return to M47 and hop east to locate M46 (Right Ascension: 7 : 41.8 – Declination: -14 : 49). While this star cluster will appear to be fainter and more compressed in binoculars, you’ll notice one star seems brighter than the rest. Using a telescope, you’ll soon discover the reason. 300 million year old M47 contains a Herschel planetary nebula known as NGC 2438 in its northern portion. The cluster contains around 150 resolvable stars and may involve as many as 500. The bright planetary nebula was first noted by Sir William Herschel and then again by John. While it would appear to be a member of the cluster, the planetary nebula is just a little closer to us than the cluster. Be sure to mark your notes… There’s a lot there in just a little area!

Until next week? May all of your journeys be at light speed!

Many thanks to John Chumack for the inspiring image!

Night Sky Guide: February 2012

Special thanks to Ninian Boyle astronomyknowhow.com for information in parts of this guide

This month, the Solar System gives us a lot to observe and we’ll even start to see the ‘spring’ constellations appear later in the evenings. But February still has the grand constellations of winter, with mighty Orion as a centrepiece to long winter nights.

The Sun has finally started to perform as it should as it approaches “Solar Maximum.” This means we get a chance to see the northern lights (Aurora), especially if you live in such places as Scotland, Canada, Scandinavia, or Alaska or the southern light (Aurora Australis) if you live in the southern latitudes of South America, New Zealand and Australia. Over the past few weeks we have seen some fine aurora displays and will we hope to seesome in February!

We have a bit of a treat in store with a comet being this month’s favourite object with binoculars as well, so please read on to find out more about February’s night sky wonders.

You will only need your eyes to see most of the things in this simple guide, but some objects are best seen through binoculars or a small telescope.

So what sights are there in the February night sky and when and where can we see them?

Aurora

Looking north from the science operations center at Poker Fla,Alaska. Credit: Jason Ahrns.

The Aurora or Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) have been seen from parts of Northern Europe and North America these last few weeks. This is because the Sun has been sending out huge flares of material, some of which have travelled towards us slamming into our magnetic field. The energetic particles then follow the Earth’s magnetic field lines towards the poles and meet the atoms of our atmosphere causing them to fluoresce, similar to what happens in a neon tube or strip light.

The colours of the aurora depend on the type of atom the charged particles strike. Oxygen atoms for example usually glow with a green colour, with some reds, pinks and blues. So the more active the Sun gets, the more likely we are to see the Northern (or Southern) Lights.

All you need to see aurora is your eyes, with no other equipment is needed. Many people image the aurora with exposures of just a few seconds and get fantastic results. Unfortunately auroras are “space weather” and are almost as difficult to predict as normal terrestrial weather, but thankfully we can be given the heads up of potential geomagnetic storms by satellites monitoring the Sun such as “STEREO” (Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory).

Spaceweather.com is a great resource for aurora and other space weather phenomenon and the site has real-time information on current aurora conditions and other phenomenon.

Planets

Mercury is too close to the Sun to be seen at the beginning of the month, but will be visible very low in the south west from the 17th onwards. At the end of February Mercury will be quite bright at around mag -0.8 and will be quite a challenge. It can be seen for about 30 minutes after sunset.

Venus will improve throughout the month in the south west and will pass within half a degree of Uranus on the 9th of February. You can see this through binoculars or a small telescope. On the 25th Venus and the slender crescent Moon can be seen together a fabulous sight. At the end of month Venus closes in on Jupiter for a spectacular encounter in March.

Venus

Mars can easily be spotted with the naked eye as a salmon pink coloured “star” and starts off the month in the constellation of Virgo and moves into Leo on the 4th. Mars is at opposition on March 3rd but is also at its furthest from the Sun on the 15th February making this opposition a poor one with respect to observing due to its small apparent size. The planet will still be visually stunning throughout the month.

Mars

Jupiter starts off the month high in the south as darkness falls and is still an incredibly bright star-like object. Through good binoculars or a small telescope you can see its four Galilean moons – a fantastic sight. On the 8th at around 19:50 UT, Europa will transit Jupiter and through a telescope you will see the tiny moons shadow move across its surface. Throughout February, Jupiter moves further west for its close encounter with Venus in March.

Jupiter

Saturn rises around midnight in the constellation of Virgo and appears to be a bright yellowish star. Through a small telescope you will see the moon Titan and Saturn’s rings as well.

Saturn

Uranus is now a binocular or telescope object in the constellation of Pisces. On the 9th Uranus and the planet Venus will be within half a degree of each other.

Uranus

Neptune is not visible this month.

Comets

Comet Garradd Credit: astronomy.com

Comet Garradd is still on show early in the month — if you have binoculars — and as the month progresses the viewing should improve. You can find the comet in the constellation of Hercules not far from the globular cluster M92. It is about a half a degree away or around the same width as the full Moon. The comet is around magnitude 7 or a little fainter than the more famous globular cluster M13 also to be found in Hercules, so you will definitely need binoculars to see it. The comet is heading north over the course of the month which should mean that it will become a little easier to see. At the beginning of the month you will have to get up early to see it, the best time being around 5:30 to 6:30 GMT. By the end of the month though, it should be visible all night long.

Moon phases

  • Full Moon – 7th February
  • Last Quarter – 14th February
  • New Moon – 21st February

Constellations

In February, Orion still dominates the sky but has many interesting constellations surrounding it.

Above and to the left of Orion you will find the constellation of Gemini, dominated by the stars Castor and Pollux, representing the heads of the twins with their bodies moving down in parallel lines of stars with each other.

Legend has it that Castor and Pollux were twins conceived on the same night by the princess Leda. On the night she married the king of Sparta, wicked Zeus (disguised as a swan) invaded the bridal suite, fathering Pollux who was immortal and twin of Castor who was fathered by the king so was mortal.

Castor and Pollux were devoted to each other and Zeus decided to grant Castor immortality and placed Castor with his brother Pollux in the stars.

Gemini has a few deep sky objects such as the famous Eskimo nebula and some are a challenge to see. Get yourself a good map, Planisphere or star atlas and see what other objects you can track down.

Credit: Adrian West

 

Night Sky Guide: January 2012

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January brings us striking views of the night skies! You’ll be able to see well known constellations during the long hours of darkness in the Northern hemisphere, with crisp cold skies. This is an ideal time to get out and look at the wonders of the night sky as there is so much to see for the beginner and seasoned astronomer alike.

You will only need your eyes to see most of the things in this simple guide, but some objects are best seen through binoculars or a small telescope.

So what sights are there in the January night sky and when and where can we see them?

Meteor Showers

Quadrantid Meteor Credit: nasa.gov

As soon as the month starts we receive a welcome treat in the form of the Quadrantid meteor shower on the evening of the 3rd/ morning of the 4th of January.

The Quadrantids can be quite an impressive shower with rates (ZHR) of up to 120 meteors per hour at the showers peak (under perfect conditions) and can sometimes produce rates of up to 200 meteors per hour. The peak is quite narrow lasting only a few hours, with activity either side of the peak being quite weak.

Due to a waxing gibbous moon, the best time to look is after midnight and through the early hours when the moon sets in time for us to see the peak which is 07:20 UT.

The radiant of the Quadrantids (where the meteors radiate from) is in the constellation of Boötes, however many people are mislead in thinking they need to look at the radiant to see the meteors – this is not true. Meteors will come from the radiant, but will appear anywhere in the whole sky at random. You can trace the shooting stars path back to the radiant to confirm if it is a meteor from the meteor shower.

For more information on how to observe and enjoy the Quadrantid meteor shower, visit meteorwatch.org

Planets

Mercury is low down in the southeast before sunrise in the first week of January.

Venus will be shining brightly in the southwest until May and will pass within 1° of Neptune the furthest planet on the 12th and 13th of January. You can see this through binoculars or a small telescope. On the 26th Venus and the Moon can be seen together after sunset.

Venus

On the 5th of January, Earth will be at “Perihelion” its closest point to the Sun.

Mars brightens slightly to -0.5 during January and can be found in the tail of Leo; it can be easily spotted with the naked eye. The red Planet is close to the Moon on the night of the 13th/ 14th January.

Mars

On January 2nd Jupiter and the Moon will be very close to each other with a separation of only 5° with Jupiter just below the Moon. Jupiter will continue to be one of the brightest objects in the sky this month.
Jupiter

Saturn now lies in the constellation of Virgo and follows after just after Mars in Leo.
Saturn

Uranus is just barely visible to the naked eye in the constellation of Pisces and can be easily spotted in binoculars or small telescopes throughout the month. The Moon will pass very close to Uranus on the 27th and will be just 5.5° to the left of the planet.
Uranus

Moon phases

  • First Quarter – 1st and 31st January
  • Full Moon – 9th January
  • Last Quarter – 16th January
  • New Moon – 23rd January

Constellations

Credit: Adrian West

In January the most dominant and one of the best known constellations proudly sits in the south of the sky – Orion the hunter.

Easily distinguishable as a torso of a man with a belt of three stars, a sword, club and shield, Orion acts as the centre piece of the surrounding winter constellations. Orion is viewed upside down in the Northern sky as seen from the Southern hemisphere.

Orion contains some exciting objects and its most famous are the Great Nebula in Orion(M42), which makes up the sword and is easily seen in binoculars or a telescope and bright Betelgeuse, Orion’s bright alpha star (α Orionis). Betelgeuse is a red supergiant many times larger than our Sun; it would engulf everything in our solar system out to the orbit of Jupiter, if the two stars swapped places. Betelgeuse will eventually end its life in a Supernova explosion and some people believe that it may have already exploded and the light hasn’t reached us yet. It would make for a fantastic sight!

The Great Orion Nebula by Patrick Cullis
The Great Orion Nebula. Image Credit: Patrick Cullis

If you draw an imaginary line through the three belt stars of Orion and keep going up and to the right, you will come to a bright orange coloured star – Aldebaran (α Tauri) in the constellation of Taurus.
Pleiades Cluster/ Seven Sisters

Taurus depicts a head of a bull with Aldebaran as its eye with a V shape that creates long horns starting from what we call the Hyades cluster, a V shaped open cluster of stars. If you continue to draw a line through the belt stars of Orion, through Aldebaran and keep going, you will eventually get to one of the gems in Taurus – The Pleiades cluster or Seven Sisters (M45) a stunning cluster of blue and extremely luminous stars and from our vantage point on Earth, the most recognisable cluster with the naked eye. A great object to scan with binoculars. A great object to hunt for with a small telescope is the Crab Nebula (M1) near the end of the lower horn of Taurus.
The Crab Nebula
The Crab Nebula

If you go back to our imaginary line drawn through the belt stars of Orion and draw it in the other direction, to left and below, you will come to the very bright star Sirius (α CMa) – The Dog Star in Canis Major. Sirius is the brightest star in the sky and is only 8.6 light years away, it is the closest star visible to the naked eye after the Sun.

Sirius along with Betelgeuse and Procyon (α CMi) in Canis Minor, form an asterism known as the Winter Triangle.

Directly above Orion and the Winter Triangle are the constellations of Gemini (The Twins), with the two bright stars of Castor and Pollux marking their heads and Auriga the charioteer, with its bright alpha star Capella (α Aur). Auriga is host to M36, M37 and M38 which are globular clusters and easily seen through binoculars or small telescope and Gemini plays host to M35.

M37

Only a few of the objects available to see have been mentioned, so get yourself a good map, Planisphere or star atlas and see what other objects you can track down!

Observing Alert: Bright Spot On Uranus Reported

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There’s nothing like a dynamic solar system… and right now another planet is being heard from. According to various sources, a bright spot – possibly a developing storm – has been spotted on Uranus.

“Professional observers this morning (October 27) reported a very bright cloud on Uranus, using the Gemini telescope, and need amateur confirmation if possible, to obtain a rotation period.” says John H. Rogers, Jupiter Section Director, British Astronomical Association. “Near-infrared filters may have the best chance of detecting it. It was recorded in the 1.6 micron band, which is further into the IR than amateurs can reach, but your usual near-IR filters might be successful. I think that methane filters are not especially promising, as these clouds on Uranus are overlaid by a methane-rich layer of atmosphere, but would be worth trying anyway. Anyone who has a 1-micron filter should have a go too.”

At this point in time, information is limited, but professional images taken using the 8.1-metre Gemini Telescope North on Hawaii have recorded a region said to be ten times brighter than the planetary background. The bright spot is believed to be attributed to methane ice. ““This is an H-band image, centered at 1.6 microns, close to the wavelength of maximum contrast for such features. Its contrast will decrease with decreasing wavelength, and will likely not be detectable by amateur astronomers, except possibly at the longer CCD wavelengths where the Rayleigh scattering background can be suppressed.” says Larry Sromovsky, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Looking with a methane band filters at 890 nm might be productive, especially if the feature continues to brighten.”

“The feature is not very large; instead its prominence is due to its high altitude, placing it above the intense absorption of methane in the deeper atmosphere. This is much higher than the 1.2-bar methane condensation level and thus it is expected to be predominantly composed of methane ice particles.”

Dr Sromovsky added: “The latitude of the feature is approximately 22.5° north planetocentric, which is a latitude nearly at rest with respect to the interior. So it should rotate around Uranus’ axis with nearly a 17.24-hour period. At the time of the image, the feature’s longitude was 351° West. That could change slowly in either direction.

“The low latitude is unusual. Previous exceptionally bright cloud features on Uranus were at close to 30° North, both in 1998 (Sromovsky et al. 2000, Icarus 146, 307-311) and in 2005 (Sromovsky et al. 2007, Icarus 192, 558-575). The 2005 feature oscillated ±1° about its mean latitude. The new feature might also oscillate in latitude, in which case its longitudinal drift rate might also vary with time.”

Hang in there, UT readers! Right now we have two of our best astrophotographers doing their best to give us an exclusive look! This page will be updated as more information becomes available.

Partial Quote Source: Skymania News Release.

Planetary Pinball – Uranus Gets The “Tilt”

Between 3 to 4 billion years ago, a body twice the size of Earth impacted Uranus, knocking the ice giant onto its side. Image Credit: Jacob A. Kegerreis/Durham University

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Popular theory on how Uranus ended up with a highly eccentric axis has always been pretty standard – one giant blow. However, at today’s (October 6) EPSC-DPS Joint Meeting in Nantes, astronomers are thinking things may have occurred slightly differently. Instead of a singular impact, the glowing blue-green gas giant may have been the victim of a series of smaller punches.

At a 98 degree inclination, Uranus and its satellites have always been somewhat of a mystery to planetary scientists. While many of the Solar Systems planets have an inclined axis, none can compare with nearly being on its side. It has always been popular conjecture that Uranus was plastered that way at some point in its evolution by a body a few times larger than Earth. While this seems plausible, only one hole remains in the theory. Why did its moons take on the same inclination instead of staying in their original position?

This long-standing puzzle may have been solved by an international team of scientists led by Alessandro Morbidelli (Observatoire de la Cote d’Azur in Nice, France). Their theory relies on computer modeling – and the thought the impact might have occurred while Uranus was still forming. If the simulations are correct and the strike happened when the planet was still surrounded by a protoplanetary disk, ” the disk would have reformed into a fat doughnut shape around the new, highly-tilted equatorial plane. Collisions within the disk would have flattened the doughnut, which would then go onto form the moons in the positions we see today.”

But that’s not a neat answer. Just like throwing a tilt into pinball, the game changes. In this new scheme, the moons displayed retrograde motion – precisely the opposite of the way things are now. So what’s a player to do? Change the game again by re-arranging the parameters. By adding multiple strikes to Uranus – instead of just one large – the satellites now behave as we observe them.

Of course, when you “tilt” the game is over, and the new research doesn’t jive with current theories of planetary formation. This may mean re-writing the rules again. Morbidelli elaborates: “The standard planet formation theory assumes that Uranus, Neptune and the cores of Jupiter and Saturn formed by accreting only small objects in the protoplanetary disk. They should have suffered no giant collisions. The fact that Uranus was hit at least twice suggests that significant impacts were typical in the formation of giant planets. So, the standard theory has to be revised.”

That deaf, dumb and blind kid… Sure plays a mean pinball!

Original Story Source: Europlanet News Release.

New Horizons Flies by Uranus

The Pluto-bound New Horizons spacecraft will fly by another planet today (March 18, 2011). However, the robotic craft won’t be taking any images as it zooms past Uranus’ orbit at about 6 p.m. EDT, 3.8 billion kilometers (2.4 billion miles) away from the gas giant (and 2.0 billion km (1.8 billion miles) from Earth). New Horizons is currently in hibernation mode, and the great distance from Uranus means any observations wouldn’t provide much as far as data and images. But, even so, this event is a ‘landmark’ so to speak in New Horizon’s gauntlet across the solar system.

“New Horizons is all about delayed gratification, and our 9 1/2-year cruise to the Pluto system illustrates that,” said Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute. “Crossing the orbit of Uranus is another milepost along our long journey to the very frontier of exploration.”

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New Horizons is now well over halfway through its journey to Pluto. Motoring along at 57,900 km/hr (36,000 mph), it will travel more than 4.8 billion km (3 billion miles) to fly past Pluto and its moons Nix, Hydra and Charon in July 2015.

But the journey doesn’t end there. After that, New Horizons will head off to a post-Pluto encounter with other objects within the Kuiper Belt, some event(s) which might take place even into the 2020’s. The planetary science community is working on the selection of potential targets.

The mission still has more than 4 years to go to get to Pluto; it will take 9 nine months to send all the data back to Earth.

The next planetary milestone for New Horizons will be the orbit of Neptune, which it crosses on Aug. 25, 2014, exactly 25 years after Voyager 2 made its historic exploration of that giant planet.

“This mission is a marathon,” says Project Manager Glen Fountain, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. “The New Horizons team has been focused on keeping the spacecraft on course and preparing for Pluto. So far, so good, and we are working to keep it that way.”

Source: New Horizons

First-Time Solar System Mosaic From the Inside Out

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Say cheese! The MESSENGER spacecraft has captured the first portrait of our Solar System from the inside looking out. The images, captured Nov. 3 and 16, 2010, were snapped with the Wide Angle Camera (WAC) and Narrow Angle Camera (NAC) of MESSENGER’s Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS).

All of the planets are visible except for Uranus and Neptune, which at distances of 3.0 and 4.4 billion kilometers were too faint to detect with even the longest camera exposure time of 10 seconds. Their positions are indicated. The dwarf-planet Pluto, smaller and farther away, would have been even more difficult to observe.

Earth’s Moon and Jupiter’s Galilean satellites (Callisto, Ganymede, Europa, and Io) can be seen in the NAC image insets. Our Solar System’s perch on a spiral arm provided a beautiful view of part of the Milky Way galaxy, bottom center.

The following is a graphic showing the positions of the planets when the graphic was acquired:

The new mosaic provides a complement to the Solar System portrait – that one from the outside looking in – taken by Voyager 1 in 1990.

These six narrow-angle color images were made from the first ever 'portrait' of the solar system taken by Voyager 1, which was more than 4 billion miles from Earth and about 32 degrees above the ecliptic. The spacecraft acquired a total of 60 frames for a mosaic of the solar system which shows six of the planets. Mercury is too close to the sun to be seen. Mars was not detectable by the Voyager cameras due to scattered sunlight in the optics, and Pluto was not included in the mosaic because of its small size and distance from the sun. These blown-up images, left to right and top to bottom are Venus, Earth, Jupiter, and Saturn, Uranus, Neptune. The background features in the images are artifacts resulting from the magnification. The images were taken through three color filters -- violet, blue and green -- and recombined to produce the color images. Jupiter and Saturn were resolved by the camera but Uranus and Neptune appear larger than they really are because of image smear due to spacecraft motion during the long (15 second) exposure times. Earth appears to be in a band of light because it coincidentally lies right in the center of the scattered light rays resulting from taking the image so close to the sun. Earth was a crescent only 0.12 pixels in size. Venus was 0.11 pixel in diameter. The planetary images were taken with the narrow-angle camera (1500 mm focal length). Credit: NASA/JPL

“Obtaining this portrait was a terrific feat by the MESSENGER team,” says Sean Solomon, MESSENGER principal investigator and a researcher at the Carnegie Institution. “This snapshot of our neighborhood also reminds us that Earth is a member of a planetary family that was formed by common processes four and a half billion years ago. Our spacecraft is soon to orbit the innermost member of the family, one that holds many new answers to how Earth-like planets are assembled and evolve.”

Source: MESSENGER

Voyager 2 at Uranus, 25 Years Ago Today

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Voyager 2 is the only spacecraft that has flown close by one of the more enigmatic planets in our solar system (and the butt of many one-liners): Uranus. It was 25 years ago today (Jan. 24) that Voyager made the close pass, and scientists from JPL have been reminiscing about how they pored over the data being returned by the Grand-Touring Voyagers.

“Voyager 2’s visit to Uranus expanded our knowledge of the unexpected diversity of bodies that share the solar system with Earth,” said Project Scientist Ed Stone, who is now based at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “Even though similar in many ways, the worlds we encounter can still surprise us.”

Voyager 2 has discovered two "shepherd" satellites associated with the rings of Uranus. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

From the flyby, we saw for the first time Uranus’ small group of tenuous rings, and the tiny shepherding moons that sculpted them. Unlike Saturn’s icy rings, they found Uranus’ rings to be dark gray, reflecting only a few percent of the incident sunlight.

Miranda, innermost of Uranus' large satellites, is seen at close range in this Voyager 2 image, taken Jan. 24, 1986, as part of a high-resolution mosaicing sequence. Image credit: NASA/JPL

The images also showed the small, icy Uranus moon Miranda that had a grooved terrain with linear valleys and ridges cutting through the older terrain and sometimes coming together in chevron shapes. They also saw dramatic fault scarps, or cliffs. All of this indicated that periods of tectonic and thermal activity had rocked Miranda’s surface in the past.

The scientists were also shocked by data showing that Uranus’ magnetic north and south poles were not closely aligned with the north-south axis of the planet’s rotation. Instead, the planet’s magnetic field poles were closer to the Uranian equator. This suggested that the material flows in the planet’s interior that are generating the magnetic field are closer to the surface of Uranus than the flows inside Earth, Jupiter and Saturn are to their respective surfaces.

Voyager 2 was launched on Aug. 20, 1977, 16 days before its twin, Voyager 1. After completing its prime mission of flying by Jupiter and Saturn, Voyager 2 was sent on the right flight path to visit Uranus, which is about 3 billion kilometers (2 billion miles) away from the sun. Voyager 2 made its closest approach – within 81,500 kilometers (50,600 miles) of the Uranian cloud tops – on Jan. 24, 1986.

By the end of the Uranus encounter and science analysis, data from Voyager 2 enabled the discovery of 11 new moons and two new rings, and generated dozens of science papers about the quirky seventh planet.

Voyager 2 moved on to explore Neptune, the last planetary target, in August 1989. It is now hurtling toward interstellar space, which is the space between stars. It is about 14 billion kilometers (9 billion miles) away from the sun. Voyager 1, which explored only Jupiter and Saturn before heading on a faster track toward interstellar space, is about 17 billion kilometers (11 billion miles) away from the sun.

“The Uranus encounter was one of a kind,” said Suzanne Dodd, Voyager project manager, based at JPL. “Voyager 2 was healthy and durable enough to make it to Uranus and then to Neptune. Currently both Voyager spacecraft are on the cusp of leaving the sun’s sphere of influence and once again blazing a trail of scientific discovery.”

Click on the images above to see higher resolution versions on JPL’s Photojournal website. Or see this link on the Photojournal to see all images of Uranus.

Pluto Spacecraft Gets Brain Transplant

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Still seven years away from its rendezvous with Pluto, the New Horizons spacecraft was awoken from hibernation for the second annual checkout of all systems. The spacecraft and its team back on Earth will also undergo three months of operations as the New Horizons will make observations of Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. But the first order of business was uploading an upgraded version of the software that runs the spacecraft’s Command and Data Handling system. “Our ‘brain transplant’ was a success,” says New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern. “The new software – which guides how New Horizons carries out commands and collects and stores data – is now on the spacecraft’s main computer and operating, over a billion miles from home!”

The mission ops team at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, radioed the software load and the commands to start it earlier this week through NASA’s Deep Space Network of antennas to the spacecraft, now just more than 1.01 billion miles (1.62 billion kilometers) from Earth. In the next 10 days the team will beam up additional new software for both the spacecraft’s Autonomy and Guidance and Control systems.

Space Science Mission Operations Center at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.
Space Science Mission Operations Center at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

Alice Bowman, New Horizons mission operations manager at APL, says the spacecraft and its computers are healthy. “The new software fixes a few bugs and enhances the way these systems operate, based on what we’ve learned in running the spacecraft in the nearly three years since launch,” she says. “They also configure the onboard systems to be ready to support the Pluto-Charon encounter rehearsals scheduled for next summer.”

New Horizons is more than 200 million miles beyond Saturn’s orbit and more than 11 astronomical units (1.02 billion miles) from the Sun, flying about a million miles per day toward Pluto. Annual Checkout 2 (ACO-2) continues through mid-December; follow its progress through frequent updates on the New Horizons Twitter page.

Source: New Horizons Press Release