The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s observatory in Hamilton, Ontario was vandalized earlier this month, with at least $100,000 in damage to equipment and facilities.
Security video shows two people using a truck to repeatedly ram into two buildings – the observatory and a meeting center — knocking down exterior walls on both buildings and damaging telescopes and other equipment inside. Nothing was stolen, but damaged for no apparent reason.
“It appears to be a failed robbery turned utter vandalism,” said the group’s president Andy Blanchard. “It looked like they wanted to destroy everything.”
In a recent study published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, an international team of researchers examined the levels of light pollution at astronomical observatories from around the world to better understand how artificial light is impacting night sky observations in hopes of taking steps to reduce it. But how important is it to preserve the scientific productivity of astronomical observatories from the dangers of light pollution, as noted in the study’s opening statement?
Exoplanets have been a particularly hot topic of late. More than 4000 of them have been discovered since the first in 1995. Now one more can potentially be added to the list. This one is orbiting Gliese 3470, a red dwarf star located in the constellation Cancer. What makes this discovery particularly interesting is that this planet wasn’t discovered by any professional astronomers using high tech equipment like the Kepler Space Telescope. It was found entirely by amateurs.
There’s a new storm brewing on Jupiter. The most famous storm on Jupiter is the Great Red Spot, which has been active since at least the time of Galileo. Most of Jupiter’s storms don’t last for hundreds of years. They grow and fade just as they do on Earth. This latest storm was discovered by amateur astronomer Clyde Foster.
A renewed era of space exploration is underway. Compared to the Space Race of the 20th century, which was characterized by two superpowers locked in a game of “getting there first”, the new era is defined predominantly by cooperation and open participation. One way in which this is evident is the role played by “citizen scientists” and amateur astronomers in exploration missions.
Consider the recently-released short film titled “A Journey to Jupiter” by Peter Rosen – a photographer and digital artist in Stockholm, Sweden. Using over 1000 images taken by amateur planetary photographers from around the world, this film takes viewers on a virtual journey to the Jovian planet, showcasing its weather patterns and dynamic nature in a way that is truly inspiring.
The images that went into making this video were collected by over 91 amateur astronomers over the course of three and a half months (between December 19th, 2014 and March 31st, 2015). After Rosen collected them, he and his associates (Christoffer Svenske and Johan Warell) then spent a year remapping them into cylindrical projections. Rosen then added color corrections, and stitched all the images into a total of 107 maps.
Much like fast-motion videos that illustrate weather patterns on Earth, or the passage of the stars across the night sky, the end result of was a film that shows the motions of Jupiter’s cloud belts and its Great Red Spot in high-resolution. Some 250 revolutions of the planet are illustrated, including from the equatorial band, the south pole, and the north pole.
As Rosen told Universe Today via email, this project was the latest in a lifelong pursuit of making astronomy accessible to the public:
“I have been into Astronomy since I was a teenager in the early 1970’s and immediately I got a passion for astrophotography, and more specifically, photographing the planets. I see astronomy as a life-long passion, so it is quite normal to strive for an evolution in what you do. I had an idea growing slowly for some years that it should be possible to animate the cloud belts of Jupiter and reveal the intricate dynamics of its flows, not just taking still pictures that might point to the changes in the structures but without the obvious visual dynamics of an animation.”
“A Journey to Jupiter” was also Rosen’s contribution to the Mission Juno Pro-Amateur Collaboration Project, of which he is part. Established by Glenn Orton of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, this effort is one of several that seeks to connect amateurs and professionals in support of space exploration. Back in May of 2016, this group met in Nice, France, for a workshop dedicated to projects and techniques related to Jupiter observations.
Among other items discussed was the limitations that missions like Juno have to deal with. While it is capable of taking very-high resolution images of Jupiter, these images are highly specific in nature. And before a team of mission scientists are able to color-correct them and stitch them together to create panoramas, etc., they are not always what you might call “visually stunning”.
However, Earth-based observatories are not hampered by this restriction, and can take multiple images of a planet over time that capture it as a whole. And thanks to the availability of sophisticated telescopes and imaging software, amateur astronomers are capable of making important contributions in this regard. And far from these being strictly for scientific purposes, there is also the added benefit of public engagement.
“This has been a very technical and scientifically correct project,” said Rosen, “but as a photographer and digital artist I also wanted to create a work of art that would inspire and appeal to people who are fascinated by the universe but who are not necessarily into astronomy.”
Of course, this does not detract from the scientific value that this film has. For example, it showcases the turbulent nature of Jupiter’s atmosphere in a way that is scientifically accurate. Hence why Ricardo Hueso Alonso – a physicist at the University of Basque Country and a member of the Planetary Virtual Observatory and Laboratory (PVOL) – plans to use the maps to measure Jupiter’s wind speeds at different latitudes.
On top of its artistic and scientific merit, “A Journey to Jupiter” also serves as a testament to the skill and capability of the today’s amateur astronomers and planetary photographers. And of course, it draws attention to the efforts of space missions such as Juno, which is currently skimming the clouds of Jupiter to obtain the most comprehensive information about the planet’s atmosphere and magnetic field to date.
Not surprisingly, this is not the first film by Rosen that combines scientific accuracy and fast-motion visuals. The short film Voyager3, released back in June of 2014, was an homage by Rosen and six other Swedish amateur astronomers to the Voyager 1 mission. As the probe made its 28-day final approach to Jupiter in 1979, it snapped what were the most detailed images of Jupiter at the time.
These images helped to improve our understanding of the gas giant, its atmosphere, and its moons. Among other things, hey revealed the turbulent nature of Jupiter’s atmosphere, and that the Great Red Spot had changed color since the Pioneer 10 and 11 missions had flown by in 1973 and 74. Produced 35 years later, Voyager 3 was an attempt to recreate this historic event using images taken by Swedish amateur astronomers using their own ground-based telescopes.
Over the course of 90 days, Rosen and his colleagues captured one million frames of Jupiter, which resulted in 560 still images of the planet. These were then stitched together using a series of software programs (Winjupos, Photoshop CS6, Fantamorph, and StarryNightPro+) to create a simulation that gives the impression of a probe approaching the planet – i.e. like a third Voyager mission, hence the name of the film.
“As Jupiter was ideally positioned high in the sky in 2013-2014 for us living far up in the northern hemisphere, I decided that it was the right moment to give it a try, so I contacted 6 other amateurs on our local forum that shared my passion for the planets,” Rosen said. “We photographed Jupiter as often as we could during a 3-month period and I took care of the processing of the images which took me a total of 6 months.”
It is an exciting time to be alive. Not only are a greater number of national space agencies taking part in the exploration of the Solar System; but more than ever, citizen scientists, amateurs and members of the general public are able to participate in a way that was never before possible.
To view more work by Peter Rosen, be sure to check out his page at Vimeo.
Obviously, you’ve seen timelapse videos of the night sky because we share them here on Universe Today all the time. But you’ve probably not seen a video like this one before. This one isn’t a timelapse, and you’ll see the night sky in all its splendor, in real time.
“I think this one may be the beginning of something damn interesting,” said filmmaker Ben Canales, who along with cohort John Waller of Uncage The Soul Productions, shot this video with new low-light technology. Using the new Canon MH20f-SH, which has the capability of shooting at 400,000 ISO, they were able to “film in the quiet moments that have been impossible to capture until now.”
“Since 2013, I’ve been tinkering with all sorts of camera/lens/software combinations trying to move beyond a long exposure still to real time video of the stars,” Canales said on Facebook. “Sooner or later, we have to move beyond a frozen photo of the stars to hear, see, feel what it is really like being out there!”
In addition to showcasing this wonderful new low-light shooting, Infinity² really captures the emotional side of amateur astronomy and the beauty of being under the night sky. He took a group of high school students out to witness the Perseid Meteor Shower in Oregon, and the students got together with the Oregon Star Party. Together, they answer the simple question “What do you feel?”
As Canales says, “Something internal and personal draws us out to the night sky.”
One more thing amateur astronomers might need to worry about besides clouds, bugs, and trying to fix equipment malfunctions in the dark – and this one’s a little more serious.
Earlier this week, two students at North Dakota State University (NDSU) in Fargo, North Dakota were settting up a telescope and camera system to take pictures of the Moon when armed police approached them. The police officers had mistaken the telescope for a rifle.
Students Levi Joraanstad and Colin Waldera told WDAY TV in Fargo that they were were setting up their telescope behind their apartment’s garage when they were blinded by a bright light and told to stop moving.
Initially, they thought it was a joke, that fellow students were pulling a prank, and because police were shining a bright light at them, the two students were blinded.
Police said that an officer patrolling the area had seen what he thought was suspicious activity behind the garage, thinking that one of the students’ dark sweater with white lettering on the back looked like a tactical vest, and that the telescope might be a rifle.
Police added that their response was a “better safe than sorry” approach, and they said the two students were never in any danger of being shot.
However, Joraanstad and Waldera said since they thought it was a joke, they initially ignored the order to stop moving and kept digging in their bags for equipment.
“I was kind of fumbling around with my stuff and my roommate and I were kind of talking, we were kind of wondering, what the heck’s going on? This is pretty dum that these guys are doing this,” WDAY quoted Joraanstad, a junior at NDSU. “And then they started shouting to quit moving or we could be shot. And so at that moment we kind of look at each other and we’re thinking we better take this seriously.”
If the police had acted more aggressively, the outcome could have been tragic. Joraanstad said the officers were very apologetic when they realized their mistake, and they explained what had happened.
So, watch where and how you point your telescope.
This is a rare occurrence, of course, and is nothing like risks amateur astronomers in Afghanistan regularly take to look through a telescope and share their views with local people. We wrote an article — which you can read here — about how they have to deal with more serious complications, such as making sure the area is clear of land mines, not arousing the suspicions the Taliban or the local police, and watching out for potential bombing raids by the US/UK/Afghan military alliance.
UPDATE: Maybe incidents like this aren’t quite as rare as I thought. Universe Today’s Bob King told me that just two weeks ago he was out observing in the countryside, when a very similar event happened to him. “A truck pulled up fast, with bright lights blinding my eyes and then the sheriff walked out of the car,” Bob said. “I quickly identified myself and explained what I was up to. He thought I was burying a dead body! No kidding.”
In March 2012, amateur astronomers began observing unusual clouds or plumes along the western limb of the red planet Mars. The plumes, in the southern hemisphere rose to over 200 kilometers altitude persisting for several days and then reappeared weeks later.
So a group of astronomers from Spain, the Netherlands, France, UK and USA have now reported their analysis of the phenomena. Their conclusions are inconclusive but they present two possible explanations.
Mars and mystery are synonymous. Among Martian mysteries, this one has persisted for three years. Our own planet, much more dynamic than Mars, continues to raise new questions and mysteries but Mars is a frozen desert. Frozen in time are features unchanged for billions of years.
In March 2012, the news of the observations caught the attention of Universe Today contributing writer Bob King. Reported on his March 22nd 2012 AstroBob blog page, the plumes or clouds were clear to see. The amateur observer, Wayne Jaeschke used his 14 inch telescope to capture still images which he stitched together into an animation to show the dynamics of the phenomena.
Now on February 16 of this year, a team of researchers led by Agustín Sánchez-Lavega of the University of the Basque Country in Bilbao, Spain, published their analysis in the journal Nature of the numerous observations, presenting two possible explanations. Their work is entitled: “An Extremely high-altitude plume seen at Mars morning terminator.”
The phenomena occurred over the Terra Cimmeria region centered at 45 degree south latitude. This area includes the tiger stripe array of magnetic fields emanating from concentrations of ferrous (iron) ore deposits on Mars; discovered by the Mars Global Surveyor magnetometer during low altitude aerobraking maneuvers at the beginning of the mission in 1998. Auroral events have been observed over this area from the interaction of the Martian magnetic field with streams of energetic particles streaming from the Sun. Sánchez-Lavega states that if these plumes are auroras, they would have to be over 1000 times brighter than those observed over the Earth.
The researchers also state that another problem with this scenario is the altitude. Auroras over Mars in this region have been observed up to 130 km, only half the height of the features. In the Earth’s field, aurora are confined to ionospheric altitudes – 100 km (60 miles). The Martian atmosphere at 200 km is exceedingly tenuous and the production of persistent and very bright aurora at such an altitude seems highly improbable.
The duration of the plumes – March 12th to 23rd, eleven days (after which observations of the area ended) and April 6th to 16th – is also a problem for this explanation. Auroral arcs on Earth are capable of persisting for hours. The Earth’s magnetic field functions like a capacitor storing charged particles from the Sun and some of these particles are discharged and produced the auroral oval and arcs. Over Mars, there is no equivalent capacitive storage of particles. Auroras over Mars are “WYSIWYG” – what you see is what you get – directly from the Sun. Concentrated solar high energy streams persisting for this long are unheard of.
The second explanation assessed by the astronomers is dust or ice crystals lofted to this high altitude. Again the altitude is the big issue. Martian dust storms will routinely lift dust to 60 km, still only one-third the height of the plumes. Martian dust devils will lift particles to 20 km. However, it is this second explanation involving ice crystals – Carbon Dioxide and Water – that the researchers give the most credence. In either instance, the particles must be concentrated and their reflectivity must account for the total brightness of the plumes. Ice crystals would be more easily transported to these heights, and also would be most highly reflective.
The paper also considered the shape of the plumes. The remarkable quality of modern amateur astrophotography cannot be overemphasized. Also the duration of the plumes was considered. By local noon and thereafter they were not observed. Again, the capabilities tendered by ground-based observations were unique and could not be duplicated by the present set of instruments orbiting Mars.
Still too many questions remain and the researchers state that “both explanations defy our present understanding of the Mars’ upper atmosphere.” By March 20th and 21st, the researchers summarized that at least 18 amateur astronomers observed the plume using from 20 to 40 cm telescopes (8 to 16 inch diameter) at wavelengths from blue to red. At Mars, the Mars Color Imager on MRO (MARCI) could not detect the event due to the 2 hour periodic scans that are compiled to make global images.
Of the many ground observations, the researchers utilized two sets from the venerable astrophotographers Don Parker and Daiman Peach. While observations and measurements were limited, the researchers analysis was exhaustive and included modeling assuming CO2, Water and dust particles. The researchers did find a Hubble observation from 1997 that compared favorably with the 2012 events and likewise modeled that event for comparison. However, Hubble results provided a single observation and the height estimate could not be narrowly constrained.
Explanation of these events in 2012 are left open-ended by the research paper. Additional observations are clearly necessary. With increased interest from amateurs and continued quality improvements plus the addition of the Maven spacecraft suite of instruments plus India’s Mars Orbiter mission, observations will eventually be gained and a Martian mystery solved to make way for yet another.