Astronomers Discover Milky Way’s Hot Halo

Artist's impression of the huge halo of hot gas surrounding the Milky Way Galaxy. Credit: NASA

Artist’s illustration of a hot gas halo enveloping the Milky Way and Magellanic Clouds (NASA/CXC/M.Weiss; NASA/CXC/Ohio State/A.Gupta et al.)

Our galaxy — and the nearby Large and Small Magellanic Clouds as well — appears to be surrounded by an enormous halo of hot gas, several hundred times hotter than the surface of the Sun and with an equivalent mass of up to 60 billion Suns, suggesting that other galaxies may be similarly encompassed and providing a clue to the mystery of the galaxy’s missing baryons.

The findings were reported today by a research team using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.

In the artist’s rendering above our Milky Way galaxy is seen at the center of a cloud of hot gas. This cloud has been detected in measurements made with Chandra as well as with the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton space observatory and Japan’s Suzaku satellite. The illustration shows it to extend outward over 300,000 light-years — and it may actually be even bigger than that.

While observing bright x-ray sources hundreds of millions of light-years distant, the researchers found that oxygen ions in the immediate vicinity of our galaxy were “selectively absorbing” some of the x-rays. They were then able to measure the temperature of the halo of gas responsible for the absorption.

The scientists determined the temperature of the halo is between 1 million and 2.5 million kelvins — a few hundred times hotter than the surface of the Sun.

But even with an estimated mass anywhere between 10 billion and 60 billion Suns, the density of the halo at that scale is still so low that any similar structure around other galaxies would escape detection. Still, the presence of such a large halo of hot gas, if confirmed, could reveal where the missing baryonic matter in our galaxy has been hiding — a mystery that’s been plaguing astronomers for over a decade.

Unrelated to dark matter or dark energy, the missing baryons issue was discovered when astronomers estimated the number of atoms and ions that would have been present in the Universe 10 billion years ago. But current measurements yield only about half as many as were present 10 billion years ago, meaning somehow nearly half the baryonic matter in the Universe has since disappeared.

Recent studies have proposed that the missing matter is tied up in the comic web — vast clouds and strands of gas and dust that surround and connect galaxies and galactic clusters. The findings announced today from Chandra support this, and suggest that the missing ions could be gathered around other galaxies in similarly hot halos.

Even though previous studies have indicated halos of warm gas existing around our galaxy as well as others, this new research shows a much hotter, much more massive halo than ever detected.

“Our work shows that, for reasonable values of parameters and with reasonable assumptions, the Chandra observations imply a huge reservoir of hot gas around the Milky Way,” said study co-author Smita Mathur of Ohio State University in Columbus. “It may extend for a few hundred thousand light-years around the Milky Way or it may extend farther into the surrounding local group of galaxies. Either way, its mass appears to be very large.”

Read the full news release from NASA here, and learn more about the Chandra mission here. (The team’s paper can be found on

Inset image: NASA’s Chandra spacecraft (NASA/CXC/NGST)

NOTE: the initial posting of this story mentioned that this halo could be dark matter. That was incorrect and not implied by the actual research, as dark matter is non-baryonic matter while the hot gas in the halo is baryonic — i.e., “normal” —  matter. Edited. – JM

Virtual Star Party – Sep. 23, 2012: The Friendly Competition Edition

In this week’s Virtual Star Party, we took a last peek at some objects low on the horizon, and then concentrated our efforts on the beautiful Autumn skies. We were able to see gorgeous views of the Moon and the Sun at the same time, as well as the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules, the Ring Nebula, the Propeller Nebula, the Veil Nebula, the Cave Nebula, the Dumbbell Nebula and several other double stars and other clusters. We had at least 7 telescopes streaming live, so there was lots to see.

Astronomers: Paul Stewart, Gary Gonella, Roy Salisbury, Stuart Forman, David Dickinson, Mike Chasin, Ray Sanders, and Mark Behrendt.

Commentators: Scott Lewis, Thad Szabo

Host: Fraser Cain

We broadcast these Virtual Star Parties live from Google+ every Sunday night, once it gets dark on the West Coast. If you’ll like to be notified of future events, circle the Virtual Star Party page. Then you’ll get an invite to our event each week.

Click here to put the Sep. 30, 2012 edition into your Google Calendar so you can watch it live.

Work Begins on the World’s Largest Cosmic Ray Observatory

Caption: Lake Baikal. Credit: SeaWiFS Project NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center and ORBIMAGE

Construction has just begun at the Tunka Valley near Lake Baikal, Siberia, Russia on an observatory that, once completed, will consist of an array of up to 1,000 detectors covering 100 square kilometres. Its size will allow scientists to investigate cosmic rays — the space radiation emitted from gamma rays and heavier nuclei — which are accelerated to energies higher than those achieved in the Large Hadron Collider. With the new observatory, called HiSCORE (Hundred Square-km Cosmic ORigin Explorer), scientists hope to solve the mystery of the origins of cosmic rays, and perhaps probe dark matter too

It was a hundred years ago that Austrian-American physicist Victor Hess first discovered that radiation was penetrating Earth’s atmosphere from outer space. The problem has been to track down their origin, as cosmic rays consist of charged particles and are therefore deflected in interstellar and intergalactic magnetic fields. The use of simple, inexpensive detector stations, placed several hundred meters apart, makes it possible to instrument a huge area, allowing scientists to investigate cosmic rays within an energy range from 100 TeV up to at least 1 EeV.

Cherenkov detector in front of the starry sky. Image: Tunka Collaboration

Cosmic rays cannot penetrate our atmosphere but each detector can observe the radiation created when cosmic rays hit the Earth’s upper atmosphere, causing a shower of secondary particles that travel faster than the speed of light in air, producing Cherenkov radiation in the process. This light is weak, but can be detected on the surface of the earth with sensitive instruments like HiSCORE’s photomultiplier tubes.

Cherenkov radiation can be used to determine the source and intensity of cosmic rays as well as to investigate the properties of high-energy astronomical objects that emit gamma rays like supernova remnants and blazars. The wide field of view also allows HiSCORE to monitor extended gamma ray emitting structures such as molecular gas clouds, dense regions or large scale structures such as star forming regions or the galactic plane.

HiSCORE can also be used for testing theories about Dark Matter. A strong absorption feature is expected around 100 TeV. Examination can give information about the absorption of gamma rays in the interstellar photon fields and the CMB. If the absorption is less than expected, this might indicate the presence of hidden photons or axions. Also, the decay of heavy supersymmetric particles might be detectable by HiSCORE. The data will improve as the facility grows over the years. By 2013-14 the area will be around one square kilometre, and over 10 square kilometres by 2016.

HiSCORE is a joint project between the Institute for Nuclear Research of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, Irkutsk State University in Siberia and Lomonosov Moscow State University – as well as DESY, the University of Hamburg and the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany. HiSCORE also hopes to collaborate with the Pierre Auger observatory in Argentina.

Find out more about HiSCORE at the project’s website

Carnival of Space #268

This week’s Carnival of Space is hosted by Stefan Lamoureux at the Links Through Space website, the site of an astronomy club in Kustavi, Finland.

Click here to read Carnival of Space #268.

And if you’re interested in looking back, here’s an archive to all the past Carnivals of Space. If you’ve got a space-related blog, you should really join the carnival. Just email an entry to [email protected], and the next host will link to it. It will help get awareness out there about your writing, help you meet others in the space community – and community is what blogging is all about. And if you really want to help out, sign up to be a host. Send an email to the above address.

Fly Over California Alongside a Space Shuttle!

A view of Endeavour and SCA over California from one of NASA’s F/A-18 chase planes (NASA/DFRC)

We’ve shared several videos from Endeavour’s trip to Los Angeles last week, taken by excited spectators along various portions of the flight path, but what was it like for the crews of the two NASA F/A-18 chase planes that accompanied the orbiter and SCA every step of the way?

Watch the video below, and put yourself in the pilot’s seat…

Shared by NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center, the video shows footage taken from the viewpoint of one of the chase planes as Endeavour was ferried aboard a Shuttle Carrier Aircraft from Edwards Air Force Base to Los Angeles International Airport.

Along the way SCA pilots Jeff Moultrie and Bill Rieke, both from NASA’s Johnson Space Center, guided the 747 over such landmarks as the State Capitol in Sacramento, the Golden Gate Bridge at San Francisco, and NASA’s Ames Research Center.

Once over the Los Angeles area Endeavour passed over well-known landmarks like Griffith Observatory, the Hollywood sign, Dodger Stadium, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Malibu Beach and the Santa Monica Pier, and Disneyland.

After several low flybys of the runway — some under 300 feet! — the SCA touched down at LAX on Runway 25L at 12:51 p.m. PDT.

NASA’s four F/A-18 Hornet aircraft, operated by Dryden Flight Research Center, are commonly called chase planes and fill the role of escort aircraft during research missions. They also are used as camera platforms for research missions that must be photographed or videotaped. Two of these chase planes accompanied Endeavour on its flight for such documentation as well as for security.

See more images of the F/A-18s here, and for more photos of Endeavour’s trip to California check out the NASA photographer photo set on Flickr.

Video: Dryden TV

Weekly SkyWatcher’s Forecast: September 24-30, 2012

Plato Crater - Credit: Damian Peach

“Shine on, shine on Harvest Moon… Up in the sky…” Oh! Howdy, fellow SkyWatchers! The seasons are most surely showing their changes in both hemispheres and this week marks the famous “Harvest Moon”. The Moon will very much be in the eyepiece this week, so enjoy some great studies. However, don’t put away your telescopes just yet! Bright skies are a great time to catch up on double star studies and variables. Whenever you’re ready, just meet me in the back yard…

Monday, September 24 – In 1970, the first unmanned, automated return of lunar material to the Earth occurred on this day when the Soviet’s Luna 16 returned with three ounces of the Moon. Its landing site was eastern Mare Fecunditatis. Look just west of the bright patch of Langrenus. Let’s walk upon the Moon this evening as we take a look at sunrise over one of the most often studied and mysterious of all craters – Plato. Located on the northern edge of Mare Imbrium and spanning 95 kilometers in diameter, Class IV Plato is simply a feature that all lunar observers check because of the many reports of unusual happenings. Over the years, mists, flashes of light, areas of brightness and darkness, and the appearance of small craters have become a part of Plato’s lore.

On October 9, 1945 an observer sketched and reported “a minute, but brilliant flash of light” inside the western rim. Lunar Orbiter 4 photos later showed where a new impact may have occurred. While Plato’s interior craterlets average between less than one and up to slightly more than two kilometers in diameter, many times they can be observed – and sometimes they cannot be seen at all under almost identical lighting conditions. No matter how many times you observe this crater, it is ever changing and very worthy of your attention!

Although tonight’s bright skies will make our next target a little difficult to find visually, look around four fingerwidths southwest of Delta Capricorni (RA 21 26 40 Dec -22 24 40) for Zeta. Also known as 34 Capricorni, Zeta is a unique binary system. Located about 398 light-years from Earth, the primary star is a yellow supergiant with some very unusual properties – it’s the warmest, most luminous barium star known. But that’s not all, because the B component is a white dwarf almost identical in size to our own Sun!

Tuesday, September 25 – Tonight would be a great opportunity to take another look at crater Eratosthenes. Just slightly north of lunar center, this easily spotted feature dangles at the end of the Apennine Mountain range like a yo-yo caught on a string. Its rugged walls and central peaks make for excellent viewing. If you look closely at the mountains northeast of Eratosthenes, you will see the high peak of Mons Wolff. Named for the Dutch philosopher and mathematician, this outstanding feature reaches 35 kilometers in height. To the southwest of Era-tosthenes you may also spot the ruined remains of crater Stadius. Very little is left of its walls and the floor is dotted with small strikes. Near the twin pair of punctuations to its south lie the remains of Surveyor 2! Now let’s journey to a very pretty star field as we head toward the western wing tip in Cygnus to have a look at Theta – also known as 13 Cygni. It is a beautiful main sequence star that is also considered by modern catalogs to be a double. For large telescopes, look for a faint (13th magnitude) companion to the west… But it’s also a wonderful optical triple!

Also in the field with Theta to the southeast is the Mira-type variable R Cygni, which ranges in magnitude from around 7 to 14 in slightly less than 430 days. This pulsating red star has a really quite interesting history that can be found at AAVSO, and is circumpolar for far northern observers. Check it out!

Wednesday, September 26 – Tonight on the Moon, let’s take an in-depth look at one of the most impressive of the southern lunar features – Clavius.

Although you cannot help but be drawn visually to this crater, let’s start at the southern limb near the terminator and work our way up. Your first sighting will be the large and shallow dual rings of Casatus with its central crater and Klaproth adjoining it. Further north is Blancanus with its series of very small interior craters, but wait until you see Clavius. Caught on the southeast wall is Rutherford with its central peak and crater Porter on the northeast wall. Look between them for the deep depression labeled D. West of D you will also see three outstanding impacts: C, N and J; while CB resides between D and Porter. The southern and southwest walls are also home to many impacts, and look carefully at the floor for many, many more! It has been often used as a test of a telescope’s resolving power to see just how many more craters you can find inside tremendous old Clavius. Power up and enjoy!

And if you’d like to visit an object that only requires eyes, then look no further than Eta Aquilae one fist-width due south of Altair…

Discovered by Pigot in 1784, this Cepheid-class variable has a precision rate of change of over a magnitude in a period of 7.17644 days. During this time it will reach of maximum of magnitude 3.7 and decline slowly over 5 days to a minimum of 4.5… Yet it only takes two days to brighten again! This period of expansion and contraction makes Eta very unique. To help gauge these changes, compare Eta to Beta on Altair’s same southeast side. When Eta is at maximum, they will be about equal in brightness.

Thursday, September 27 – Tonight exploring the Moon will be in order as one of the most graceful and recognizable lunar features will be prominent – Gassendi. As an ancient mountain-walled plain that sits proudly at the northern edge of Mare Humorum, Gassendi sports a bright ring and a triple central mountain peak that are within the range of binoculars.

Telescopic viewers will appreciate Gassendi at high power in order to see how its southern border has been eroded by lava flow. Also of note are the many rilles and ridges that exist inside the crater and the presence of the younger Gassendi A on the north wall. While viewing the Mare Humorum area, keep in mind that we are looking at an area about the size of the state of Arkansas. It is believed that a planetoid collision originally formed Mare Humorum. The incredible impact crushed the surface layers of the Moon resulting in a concentric “anticline” that can be traced out to twice the size of the original impact area. The floor of this huge crater then filled in with lava, and was once thought to have a greenish appearance but in recent years has more accurately been described as reddish. That’s one mighty big crater!

Tonight we’ll begin with an easy double star and make our way towards a more difficult one. Beautiful, bright and colorful, Beta Cygni is an excellent example of an easily split double star. As the second brightest star in the constellation of Cygnus, Albireo lies roughly in the center of the “Summer Triangle” making it a relatively simple target for even urban telescopes.

Albireo’s primary (or brightest) star is around magnitude 4 and has a striking orangish color. Its secondary (or B) star is slightly fainter at a bit less than magnitude 5, and often appears to most as blue, almost violet. The pair’s wide separation of 34? makes Beta Cygni an easy split for all telescopes at modest power, and even for larger binoculars. At approximately 410 light-years away, this colorful pair shows a visual separation of about 4400 AU, or around 660 billion kilometers. As Burnham noted, “It is worth contemplating, in any case, the fact that at least 55 solar systems could be lined up, edge-to-edge, across the space that separates the components of this famous double!”

Now let’s have a look at Delta. Located around 270 light-years away, Delta is known to be a more difficult binary star. Its duplicity was discovered by F. Struve in 1830, and it is a very tough test for smaller optics. Located no more than 220 AU away from the magnitude 3 parent star, the companion orbits anywhere from 300 to 540 years and is often rated as dim as 8th magnitude. If skies aren’t steady enough to split it tonight, try again! Both Beta and Delta are on many challenge lists.

Friday, September 28 – Tonight our primary lunar study is crater Kepler. Look for it as a bright point, slightly lunar north of center near the terminator. Its home is the Oceanus Procellarum – a sprawling dark mare composed primarily of dark minerals of low reflectivity (albedo) such as iron and magnesium. Bright, young Kepler will display a wonderfully developed ray system. The crater rim is very bright, consisting mostly of a pale rock called anorthosite. The “lines” extending from Kepler are fragments that were splashed out and flung across the lunar surface when the impact occurred. The region is also home to features known as “domes” – seen between the crater and the Carpathian Mountains. So unique is Kepler’s geological formation that it became the first crater mapped by U.S. Geological Survey in 1962.

Up next, we’ll have a look at the central star of the “Northern Cross” – Gamma Cygni. Also known as Sadr, this beautiful main sequence star lies at the northern edge of the “Great Rift.” Surrounded by a field of nebulosity known as IC 1310, second magnitude Gamma is very slowly approaching us, but still maintains an average distance of about 750 light-years. It is here in the rich, starry fields that the great dust cloud begins its stretch toward southern Centaurus – dividing the Milky Way into two streams. The dark region extending north of Gamma towards Deneb is often referred to as the “Northern Coalsack,” but its true designation is Lynds 906.

If you take a very close look at Sadr, you will find it has a well-separated 10th magnitude companion star, which is probably not related – yet in 1876, S. W. Burnham found that it itself is a very close double. Just to its north is NGC 6910 (Right Ascension: 20 : 23.1 – Declination: +40 : 47), a roughly 6th magnitude open cluster which displays a nice concentration in a small telescope. To the west is Collinder 419, another bright gathering that is nicely concentrated. South is Dolidze 43, a widely spaced group with two brighter stars on its southern perimeter. East is Dolidze 10, which is far richer in stars of various magnitudes and contains at least three binary systems.

Whether you use binoculars or telescopes, chances are you won’t see much nebulosity in this region – but the sheer population of stars and objects in this area makes a visit with Sadr worthy of your time!

Saturday, September 29 – Tonight we’re going to have a look at a lunar feature that goes beyond simply incredible – it’s downright weird. Start your journey by identifying Kepler and head due west across Oceanus Procellarum until you encounter the bright ring of crater Reiner. Spanning 30 kilometers, this crater isn’t anything in particular – just shallow-looking walls with a little hummock in the center. But, look further west and a little more north for an anomaly – Reiner Gamma.

Well, it’s bright. It’s slightly eye-shaped. But what exactly is it? Possessing no real elevation or depth above the lunar surface, Reiner Gamma could very well be an extremely young feature caused by a comet. Only three other such features exist – two on the lunar far side and one on Mercury. They are high albedo surface deposits with magnetic properties. Unlike a lunar ray of material ejected from below the surface, Reiner Gamma can be spotted during the daylight hours – when ray systems disappear. And, unlike other lunar formations, it never casts a shadow.

Reiner Gamma also causes a magnetic deviation on a barren world that has no magnetic field. This has many proposed origins, such as solar storms, volcanic gaseous activity, or even seismic waves. But, one of the best explanations for its presence is a cometary strike. It is believed that a split-nucleus comet, or cometary fragments, once impacted the area and the swirl of gases from the high velocity debris may have somehow changed the regolith. On the other hand, ejecta from an impact could have formed around a magnetic “hot spot,” much like a magnet attracts iron filings. No matter which theory is correct, the simple act of viewing Reiner Gamma and realizing that it is different from all other features on the Moon’s earthward facing side makes this journey worth the time!

When you’re done, let’s head about a fingerwidth south of Gamma Cygni to have a look at an open cluster well suited for all optics – M29 (Right Ascension: 20 : 23.9 – Declination: +38 : 3).

Discovered in 1764 by Charles Messier, this type D cluster has an overall brightness of about magnitude 7, but isn’t exactly rich in stars. Hanging out anywhere from 6000 to 7200 light-years away, one would assume this to be a very rich cluster and it may very well have hundreds of stars – but their light is blocked by a dust cloud a thousand times more dense than average. Approaching us at around 28 kilometers per second, this loose grouping could be as old as 10 million years and appears much like a miniature of the constellation of Ursa Major at low powers. Even though it isn’t the most spectacular in star-rich Cygnus, it is another Messier object to add to your list!

Sunday, September 30 – Today in 1880, Henry Draper must have been up very early indeed when he took the first photo of the Great Orion Nebula (M42). Although you might not wish to set up equipment before dawn, you can still use a pair of binoculars to view this awesome nebula! You’ll find Orion high in the southeast for the Northern Hemisphere, and M42 in the center of the “sword” that hangs below its bright “belt” of three stars.

Our seasons are changing – and so the seasons change on other planets, too. Today marks the universal date on which Northern Autumn, Southern Spring Equinox occurs on Mars. Keep an eye for subtle changes in surface features of the red planet!

This is also the Universal date the Moon will become Full and it will be the closest to the Autumnal Equinox. Because its orbit is more nearly parallel to the eastern horizon, it will rise at dusk for the next several nights in a row. On the average, the Moon rises about 50 minutes later each night, but at this time of year it’s around 20 minutes later for mid-northern latitudes and even less farther north. Because of this added light, the name “Harvest Moon” came about because it allowed farmers more time to work in the fields.

Often times we perceive the Harvest Moon as being more orange than at any other time of the year. The reason is not only scientific enough – but true. Coloration is caused by the scattering of the light by particles in our atmosphere. When the Moon is low, like now, we get more of that scattering effect and it truly does appear more orange. The very act of harvesting itself produces more dust and often times that coloration will last the whole night through. And we all know the size is only an “illusion”…

So, instead of cursing the Moon for hiding the deep sky gems tonight, enjoy it for what it is…a wonderful natural phenomenon that doesn’t even require a telescope!

Until next week? Ask for the Moon, but keep on reaching for the stars!

Curiosity Shows Off Its Credentials

Plaque on the exterior of Mars Science Laboratory, aka “Curiosity” (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Curiosity drops a few rather big names in recent images taken with its MAHLI (Mars Hand Lens Imager) camera: here we see a plaque affixed to its surface bearing the names and signatures of U.S. President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Office of Science and Technology Director John Holdren, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and other key figures responsible for making the Mars Exploration Program possible.

You never know… even on another planet it can’t hurt to have friends in high places!

The image was captured by MAHLI on September 19, the 44th sol of the MSL mission. (See the original raw downlink here.)

The rectangular plaque is made of anodized aluminum, measuring 3.94 inches (100 mm) high by 3.23 inches (82 mm) wide. It’s attached to the front left side of Curiosity’s deck with four bolts. (Explore Curiosity in 3D here.)

Dust, pebbles and variously-sized bits of Mars can be seen scattered around the plaque and deck, leftover detritus from the rover’s landing.

The complete list of signatures is:

Barack Obama, President, United States of America

Joe Biden, Vice President

John P. Holdren, Director, Office of Science and Technology Policy

Charles F. Bolden, Jr., Administrator, National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Edward J. Weiler, Associate Administrator, Science Mission Directorate (2008–2011)

James Green, Director, Planetary Sciences Division

Doug McCuistion, Director, Mars Exploration Program

Michael Meyer, Program Scientist, Mars Exploration Program

David Lavery, Program Executive, Mars Science Laboratory

In another image taken on the same sol, Curiosity shows some national pride with a circular medallion decorated with the stars and stripes of the American flag. The 68-mm-wide circular aluminum plate is affixed to one of the rover’s rocker arms. It’s just one of its four “mobility logos” — the others having the NASA logo, the JPL logo and the Curiosity mission logo.

Curiosity’s “stars and stripes” American flag mobility logo (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

The main purpose of Curiosity’s MAHLI camera is to acquire close-up, high-resolution views of rocks and soil at the rover’s Gale Crater field site. Developed for NASA by Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego, CA, the camera is capable of focusing on any target at distances of about 0.8 inch (2.1 centimeters) to infinity, providing versatility for other uses, such as views of the rover itself from different angles.

Get more technical information about the MAHLI camera here.

Final Push: Help Uwingu Create a New Concept for Funding Space Exploration and Astronomy

We’ve written about Uwingu previously, and this creative new concept for creating funding for space exploration and astronomy is now in their final push to reach their Indigogo goal of raising an initial $75,000 through their Indiegogo page (similar to Kickstarter) to get the company going. After that, they hope to be self-sufficient and build enough resources to be a source of grants and funding for space and astronomy research. Indigogo provided the group a rare extension in their funding-raising drive, which now goes through Monday night, September 24 at 11:59PM Pacific Time.

Why Uwingu?

“It seems like every single year there is a funding problem for space researchers and educators, and every year it is something different,” said one the people behind Uwingu, Alan Stern, speaking on Colorado Public Radio. “It’s the economy or Congress or budget overruns, or cuts from the presidential administration, but every year there is a budget battle. … We started to think, what could we do that could make a difference?”

Stern is a huge name in the space and planetary science community, and he’s currently the principal investigator on the New Horizons mission to Pluto, and was formerly Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate.

Stern and the impressive group of individuals from the space and astronomy community who have teamed up to do this had the idea of creating a for-profit company that sells space themed products that children, educators, hobbyists — a wide range of people — who can purchase and enjoy. Half of all revenue go towards funding space research and education, and the other will go towards the costs of creating what they sell. Plans are to sell entertaining and educational apps about space and other themes, starting next month.

“We are asking people to go the Indiegogo page, take a look and consider participating, and then to please pass it on to others you know.” Stern told Universe Today. “For everyone 10 people you send it to, maybe one will contribute. This needs to grow organically by people passing it on through the internet. We’re hoping the space and astronomy people will help give us a start, but when it launches with the real first products out into the broader public, we think it will be a real breakout.”

“If we can get that message across, I think it will fly. I have faith in this,” Stern added.

As the funding period closes out, Stern will be on the Coast-to-Coast radio show with George Noory from 10-midnight PDT on Monday, September 24, so listen to him talk about Uwingu, New Horizons and the other missions he is part of.

To contribute to the project, or to learn more about Uwingu, visit the company’s Indiegogo page:

So You Want to Look at the Moon?

The Moon. Photo credit: NASA.

This Saturday September 22, 2012 marks the 3rd annual International Observe the Moon Night (InOMN), when people all over the world will gather to observe the Moon. But what do you do the rest of the year? Luckily, in today’s internet age, there is a great deal of lunar data, from a range of missions, available on-line for you to look at. Also, some great tools have been developed that make data easy to access, put into context, and interpret, giving everyone the power to explore the Moon like a scientist. All you need to do it click on the URL and you’re off…

InOMN was originally started in as a celebration of the wonderful lunar data that was being returned by missions such as the Lunar Reconaissance Orbiter, Chandrayaan-1, and other spacecraft. Since then it has grown to phenomenal proportions, with hundreds of individual events hosted literally all over the world. To learn more about InOMN, or to find the event nearest you, visit the InOMN website.

But what do you do if there is no event being hosted near you, or if the weather turns cloudy in your geographic region? You can always join the CosmoQuest InOMN Hangout on Google+.

For more information about InOMN, listen to a 365 Days of Astronomy podcast on this year’s event.

However, a true passion and interest in the Moon is not a one day thing. What if you want to look at the Moon on some other day, or see details that are too small to be resolved by even the largest telescopes on Earth? As it happens, data from those same missions that inspired the very first InOMN is very easy for the average person to see, any time they want to. Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3) data from the Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft can be accessed on-line using the ACT-REACT Quick Map tool.

ACT-REACT Quick Map tool
ACT-REACT Quick Map ( places skinny little strips of high resolution data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera into context on the Moon. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University.


This LROC version of the ACT-REACT Quick Map tool (there is also a MESSENGER version for Mercury data) was originally developed by the LROC team to place skinny little strips of LROC Narrow Angle Camera data into context on the Moon, and to help with targeting for further high resolution data collection. They partnered with software firm Applied Coherent Technology (ACT) to create this relatively user friendly on-line tool, and then made it accessible for anyone who wants to use it!

The interface of the ACT-REACT Quick Map tool is fairly intuitive. If you have used Google Maps, you should be able to navigate your way around fairly quickly. For more details on the available features, check out the LROC data user tutorial and the M3 data user tutorial. Though, one of the first things you might want to know how to do is to turn off the bright colours that represent elevation (uncheck the LROC WAC Color Shaded Relief checkbox). This shaded relief layer is great when you want to understand the topography of fairly large features, but is more distracting than helpful when looking at highest resolution data.

Colour Shaded Relief layer
The colour shaded relief data is great at showing off the elevation of large features, but is less useful when zoomed in to smaller scales. Turn it off by unchecking the LROC WAC Color Shaded Relief checkbox. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University


The most exciting thing about the ACT-REACT Quick Map tool is that it makes these amazing lunar data sets available to the public in a way that was never possible before. Anyone sitting at their computer at home can study the Moon, viewing large lunar features, like impact basins and maria, and then zooming into to see details as small as their desk. This kind of technological advance opens the door for every enthusiast to conduct their own personal explorations of the Moon, and gives them an opportunity to see and think like the scientists who are currently working with this data to discover new and exciting information about our Moon.

Landslides Zoom-In
Zooming in allows you to see spectacular landslides along the walls of a crater. At the highest resolutions, individual boulders can be seen. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University


So, after International Observe the Moon Night is over, don’t wait until next year to look at the Moon again. Head over to ACT-REACT Quick Map and start exploring!

Fireball Meteor or Re-Entering Satellite? “Something” Broke Up Over the UK on Friday

Twitter is all abuzz with sightings of a huge fireball meteor that streaked across the skies Friday night at approximately 22:00 UTC. There are reports from Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Central England.

I’m going to link a bunch of videos so you can check out the event from multiple angles, but I want to make a completely unscientific judgement: it kind of looks like a re-entering spacecraft. Take a look at what the Jules Verne spacecraft looked like when it came back into the Earth’s atmosphere. See how it broke up into all those pieces? And don’t let anyone fool you with this picture. It was taken about 3 years ago in the Netherlands.

Phil made a similar observation, but he’s still on the fence. We’ll have to wait for someone official to tell us what it was.

Did you see it? Did you get a video?

I’ll give you an update as soon as I know anything else.
Continue reading “Fireball Meteor or Re-Entering Satellite? “Something” Broke Up Over the UK on Friday”