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?Continue reading “Many of the World’s Greatest Observatories Suffer from Some Light Pollution”
Ever since it was approved for construction, the Thirty Meter Telescope has been the subject of controversy. A proposed astronomical observatory that is planned to be built on Mauna Kea – Hawaii’s famous dormant volcano and the home of the Mauna Kea Observatories – the construction of this facility has been delayed multiple times due to resistance from the local community.
Stressing the impact the facility will have on local wild life, the associated noise and traffic, and the fact that the proposed site is on land sacred to Hawaii’s indigenous people, there are many locals who have protested the facility’s construction. But after multiple delays, and the cancellation of the facility’s building permits, it appears that public support may be firmly behind the creation of the TMT.
Planning for the Thirty Meter Telescope began in 2000, when astronomers began considering the construction of telescopes that measured more than 20 meters in diameter. In time, the University of California and Caltech began conducting a series of studies, which would eventually culminate in the plans for the TMT. Site proposals also began to be considered by the TMT board, which led to the selection of Mauna Kea in 2009.
However, after opposition and protests halted construction on three occasions – on Oct. 14th, 2014, then again on April 2th and June 24th of 2015 – the State Supreme Court of Hawaii invalidated the TMT’s building permits. Since that time, multiple polls have been conducted to gauge public support for the project. Whereas a previous one, which was conducting in Oct. 2015, indicated that 59% of Big Island residents supported it (and 39% opposed it) the most recent poll yielded different results.
This poll, which was conducted in July of 2016 by Honolulu-based Ward Research, Inc. shows that 60% of Big Island residents now support moving ahead with construction, while 31% remain opposed. While not a huge change, it does indicate that support for the project now outweighs opposition by a 2 to 1 margin since the last time residents were asked, roughly nine months ago.
The first poll surveyed 613 Hawaii Big Island residents, aged 18 years and older and from a variety of backgrounds. The most recent poll surveyed 404 Hawaii residents at least 18 years old via both cellphone and landline (with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percent).
The recent poll also indicated that the majority of respondents, ranging from 66% to 76%, believe that TMT will provide economic and educational opportunities, and that not moving forward would be bad for the island and its residents. Also of interest was the fact that support for TMT’s construction was split among Indigenous Hawaiians, with 46 percent of those polled in support and 45 percent opposed.
As Ed Stone, the TMT Executive Director, said of the results in a recent press release:
“It was important for us to understand how Hawaii Island residents feel about the project, and the latest poll results demonstrate that opposition to TMT on Hawaii Island is decreasing. That’s significant and we are most grateful that the community’s support of the project remains high. The findings also show that the general public on Hawaii Island understands the benefits TMT will bring in terms of Hawaii’s economy and education, both of which are very important to TMT.”
What is perhaps most relevant is the fact that while this most-recent poll shows virtually no change in the amount of support, it does show that opposition has decreased. The reason for this is not clear, but according to Kealoha Pisciotta of the Mauna Kea Hui – which is litigating against TMT’s construction – the change is attributable to the PR efforts of TMT, which hired Honolulu-based PR firm to promote their agenda.
Pisciotta also stressed that the state Constitution of Hawaii protects the cultural and traditional practices that will be affected by this massive project, which is something residents don’t appear to understand. Faced with the promise of benefits – which includes TMT’s annual $1 million contribution to The Hawaii Island New Knowledge (THINK) Fund, which provides for STEM education.
This is not to say that those polled rejected the concerns of those advocating for protection of Hawaiian heritage and culture. In fact, 89% of respondents – the largest return in the poll – indicated that “there should be a way for science and Hawaiian culture to co-exist”. While this is easier said than done, it does show that compromise is the most popular option, and could present a mutually-satisfactory way of moving forward.
What’s more, this is hardly the first time that Mauna Kea has been at the center of controversy. Ever since construction began on the Astronomy Precinct in 1967, there has been opposition from environmentalists and the Indigenous community. Not only is the Precinct located on land protected by the Historical Preservation Act of 1966 due to its significance to Hawaiian culture, it is also the habitat of an endangered species of bird (the Palila).
Nevertheless, Mauna Kea remains the preferred choice for the location of the TMT, though the board is evaluating alternative sites in case the project cannot move forward. Stone and his colleagues hope to resume construction of the TMT facility by April of 2018, and begin gathering images of the cosmos in the near-ultraviolet to mid-infrared by the 2020s.
Further Reading: tmt.org
All right, sure – there are a lot of asteroids that don’t hit us. And of course quite a few that do… Earth is impacted by around 100 tons of space debris every day (although that oft-stated estimate is still being researched.) But on March 10, 2015, a 12–28 meter asteroid dubbed 2015 ET cosmically “just missed us,” zipping past Earth at 0.3 lunar distances – 115,200 kilometers, or 71, 580 miles.*
The video above shows the passage of
2015 ET across the sky on the night of March 11–12, tracked on camera from the Crni Vrh Observatory in Slovenia. It’s a time-lapse video (the time is noted along the bottom) so the effect is really neat to watch the asteroid “racing along” in front of the stars… but then, it was traveling a relative 12.4 km/second!
UPDATE 3/14: As it turns out the object in the video above is not 2015 ET; it is a still-undesignated NEO. (My original source had noted this incorrectly as well.) Regardless, it was an almost equally close pass not 24 hours after 2015 ET’s! Double tap. (ht to Gerald in the comments.) UPDATE #2: The designation for the object above is now 2015 EO6.
At the ESO’s observatories located high in the Atacama Desert of Chile, amazing images of distant objects in the Universe are captured on a regular basis. But in January 2015, ESO photo ambassador Petr Horálek captured some amazing photos of much closer phenomena: red sprites flashing in the atmosphere high above distant thunderstorms.
The photo above was captured from ESO’s Paranal Observatory. A few days earlier during the early morning hours of Jan. 20 Petr captured another series of sprites from the La Silla site, generated by a storm over Argentina over 310 miles (500 km) away.
So-named because of their elusive nature, sprites appear as clusters of red tendrils above a lighting flash, often extending as high as 55 miles (90 km) into the atmosphere. The brightest region of a sprite is typically seen at altitudes of over 40-45 miles (65-75 km).
Because they occur high above large storms, only last for fractions of a second and emit light in the portion of the spectrum to which our eyes are the least sensitive, observing sprites is notoriously difficult.
These furtive atmospheric features weren’t captured on camera until 1989. Continuing research has since resulted in more images, including some from the International Space Station. When they are spotted, sprites – and their lower-altitude relatives blue jets – can appear as bright as moderate aurorae and have also been found to emit radio noise. It has even been suggested that looking for sprite activity on other planets could help identify alien environments that are conducive to life.
Find out more about sprite research from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and check out the PBS NOVA program “At the Edge of Space” below about a sprite hunt in the skies over Denver, CO conducted by a team of American scientists and Japanese filmmakers.
Astronomers wanting a closer look at the recent Type Ia supernova that erupted in M82 back in January are in luck. Thanks to NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) near-infrared observations have been made from 43,000 feet — 29,000 feet higher than some of the world’s loftiest ground-based telescopes.
(And, technically, that is closer to M82. If only just a little.)
All sarcasm aside, there really is a benefit from that extra 29,000 feet. Earth’s atmosphere absorbs a lot of wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum, especially in the infrared and sub-millimeter ranges. So in order to best see what’s going on in the Universe in these very active wavelengths, observational instruments have to be placed in very high, dry (and thus also very remote) locations, sent entirely out into space, or, in the case of SOFIA, mounted inside a modified 747 where they can simply be flown above 99% of the atmosphere’s absorptive water vapor.
During a recent 10-hour flight over the Pacific, researchers aboard SOFIA turned their attention to SN2014J, one of the closest Type Ia “standard candle” supernovas that have ever been seen. It appeared suddenly in the relatively nearby Cigar Galaxy (M82) in mid-January and has since been an exciting target of observation for scientists and amateur skywatchers alike.
In addition to getting a bird’s-eye-view of a supernova, they used the opportunity to calibrate and test the FLITECAM (First Light Infrared Test Experiment CAMera) instrument, a near infrared camera with spectrographic capabilities mounted onto SOFIA’s 2.5-meter German-built main telescope.
What they’ve found are the light signatures of heavy metals being ejected by the exploding star. (Rock on, SN2014J.)
“When a Type Ia supernova explodes, the densest, hottest region within the core produces nickel 56,” said Howie Marion from the University of Texas at Austin, a co-investigator aboard the flight. “The radioactive decay of nickel-56 through cobalt-56 to iron-56 produces the light we are observing tonight. At this life phase of the supernova, about one month after we first saw the explosion, the H- and K-band spectra are dominated by lines of ionized cobalt. We plan to study the spectral features produced by these lines over a period of time and see how they change relative to each other. That will help us define the mass of the radioactive core of the supernova.”
Further observations from SOFIA will help researchers learn more about the evolution of Type Ia supernovas, which in addition to being part of the life cycles of certain binary-pair stars are also valuable tools used by astronomers to determine distances to far-off galaxies.
“To be able to observe the supernova without having to make assumptions about the absorption of the Earth’s atmosphere is great,” said Ian McLean, professor at UCLA and developer of FLITECAM. “You could make these observations from space as well, if there was a suitable infrared spectrograph to make those measurements, but right now there isn’t one. So this observation is something SOFIA can do that is absolutely unique and extremely valuable to the astronomical community.”
Source: SOFIA Science Center, NASA Ames
UPDATE 4 March 2014: The FY 2015 budget request proposed by the White House will effectively shelf the SOFIA mission, redirecting its funding toward planetary missions like Cassini and an upcoming Europa mission. Unfortunately, SOFIA’s flying days are now numbered, unless German partner DLR increases its contribution. Read more here.
Gaia, ESA’s long-anticipated mission to map the stars of our galaxy (as well as do a slew of other cool science things) is now tucked comfortably in its position in orbit around Earth-Moon L2, a gravitationally stable spot in space 1.5 million km (932,000 miles) away.
Once its mission begins in earnest, Gaia will watch about a billion stars an average of 70 times each over a five-year span… that’s 40 million observations every day. It will measure the position and key physical properties of each star, including its brightness, temperature and chemical composition, and help astronomers create the most detailed 3D map of the Milky Way ever.
But before Gaia can do this, its own position must be precisely determined. And so several of the world’s most high-powered telescopes are trained on Gaia, keeping track daily of exactly where it is up to an accuracy of 150 meters… which, with the ten-meter-wide spacecraft one and a half million kilometers away, isn’t too shabby.
Called GBOT, for Ground Based Orbit Tracking, the campaign to monitor Gaia’s position was first set up in 2008 — long before the mission launched. This allowed participating observatories to practice targeting on other existing spacecraft, like NASA’s WMAP and ESA’s Planck space telescopes.
The image above shows an image of Gaia (circled) as seen by the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope Survey Telescope (VST) atop Cerro Paranal in Chile, one of the supporting observatories in the GBOT campaign. The images were taken with the 2.6-meter Survey Telescope’s 268-megapixel OmegaCAM on Jan. 23, 6.5 minutes apart. With just the reflected sunlight off its circular sunshield, the distant spacecraft is about a million times fainter than what your eyes could see unaided.
It’s also one the closest objects ever imaged by the VST.
Currently Gaia is still undergoing calibration for its survey mission. Some problems have been encountered with stray sunlight reaching its detectors, and this may be due to the angle of the sunshield being a few degrees too high relative to the Sun. It could take a few weeks to implement an orientation correction; read more on the Gaia blog here.
Of the billion stars Gaia will observe, 99% have never had their distances accurately measured. Gaia will also observe 500,000 distant quasars, search for brown dwarfs and exoplanets, and will conduct experiments testing Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Find out more facts about the mission here.
Gaia launched on December 19, 2013, aboard a Soyuz VS06 from ESA’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. Watch the launch here.
The result of sunlight reflected off fine particles of dust aligned along the plane of the Solar System, zodiacal light appears as a diffuse, hazy band of light stretching upwards from the horizon after sunset or before sunrise. Most people have never seen zodiacal light because it’s very dim, and thus an extremely dark sky is required. But thanks to recent dark sky regulations that were passed in the coastal Rhode Island town of Charlestown, this elusive astronomical phenomenon has become visible — to the particular delight of one local observatory.
Frosty Drew Observatory is a small, privately-run observatory featuring a Meade Schmidt Cassegrain LX200 16″ telescope mounted on an alt-azimuth pier inside a dome that stands among the sports fields, parking areas, and nature trails of Ninigret Park and Wildlife Refuge in southern Rhode Island. Being a good distance from urban centers and developed areas, the skies there are some of the darkest in the state. But situated along the eastern seaboard of the United States, even Charlestown’s coast lies beneath a perpetual haze of light pollution.
A new town ordinance, passed in 2012, helped to darken the skies a notch. And while watching comet ISON one evening, astronomer Scott MacNeill became aware of the results.
The following is an excerpt from a Jan. 7 article by Cynthia Drummond of The Westerly Sun, reprinted with permission:
Scott MacNeill was in Ninigret Park, his telescope trained on the comet “Ison,” when he saw something he had never seen before: a celestial phenomenon called “zodiacal light.” After several decades of being obscured by light pollution, the feature was visible again, thanks to the town’s “dark sky” ordinance.
At first, MacNeill, an astronomer and the assistant director of the Frosty Drew observatory, didn’t believe what he was seeing. The cone of light, which he initially thought was light pollution, turned out to be a faint, white glow that astronomers at the observatory hadn’t glimpsed in recent memory.
“To see it in New England, period, is amazing, Zodiacal light is a common marker for the quality of a dark sky location.”
– Scott MacNeill, Astronomer, Frosty Drew Observatory
“I was sitting back for a minute, just looking at the sky, and I said ‘wait a minute. This is the southeast, and to the southeast is the ocean. What is coming up in the southeast?’ And then I noticed the cone. And I’m like ‘no way. That can’t be zodiacal light.’ I’ve heard so many stories about the days of old at Frosty Drew when you used to see zodiacal light here,” he said.
MacNeill credits Charlestown’s dark sky ordinance with reducing light pollution to the point where zodiacal light can be seen again. The ordinance, adopted in October 2012, regulates commercial outdoor lighting in order to improve the town’s dark sky for star-gazers, and to protect residents, wildlife and light-sensitive plants from the effects of light pollution.
One of the provisions of the ordinance requires that new lighting fixtures be designed to focus downward so light does not radiate up into the sky. Lighting installed before the ordinance was passed is exempt from the new regulations.
Building and Zoning Official Joe Warner explained that after the ordinance passed, two major sources of light pollution near the observatory were modified so they would be less polluting.
“At Ninigret Wildlife Refuge, some of the pole lights were changed to dark sky compliant lighting. The Charlestown Ambulance barn also replaced their lights with dark sky compliant lights,” he said.
Charlestown has been recognized as one of the only dark spots on the New England coast — a rare treat for people who enjoy looking at the night sky.
It’s fantastic to see results like this both occurring and being publicized, as dark skies have become quite rare in many populated areas of the world. People who live in or near major metropolitan areas — even in the surrounding sprawling suburbs — often never truly get a dark sky, not such that the dimmer stars, the Milky Way, meteor showers — and yes, the zodiacal light — can be readily seen on an otherwise clear night. The view of a star-filled night sky that has been a part of the human existence for millennia has steadily been doused by the murky glow of artificial lighting. Luckily groups like the International Dark Sky Association are actively trying to change that, but change isn’t always welcome — or quick.
At least, in one Rhode Island town anyway, a small victory has been won for the night.
(HT to Brown University’s Ladd Observatory in Providence for the heads-up on this story.)
As we’ve mentioned before, the Sun is a terrifying ball of plasma. It’s a good thing we’re keeping an eye on it. And that eye is the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, or SOHO. Operating for more than 18 years now, SOHO has been making detailed observations of the Sun’s activity though an almost entire solar cycle. With so many years of operation, SOHO has some amazing stories to tell.
Just as anticipated, on Friday, Feb. 15, asteroid 2012 DA14 passed us by, zipping 27,000 kilometers (17,000 miles) above Earth’s surface — well within the ring of geostationary weather and communications satellites that ring our world. Traveling a breakneck 28,100 km/hr (that’s nearly five miles a second!) the 50-meter space rock was a fast-moving target for professional and amateur observers alike. And even as it was heading away from Earth DA14 was captured on camera by a team led by MIT researcher Dr. Nicholas Moskovitz using the 2.1-meter telescope at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Tucson, AZ. The team’s images are shown above as an animated gif (you may need to click the image to play it.)
This object’s close pass, coupled with the completely unexpected appearance of a remarkably large meteor in the skies over Chelyabinsk, Russia on the morning of the same day, highlight the need for continued research of near-Earth objects (NEOs) — since there are plenty more out there where these came from.
“Flybys like this, particularly for objects smaller than 2012 DA14, are not uncommon. This one was special because we knew about it well in advance so that observations could be planned to look at how asteroids are effected by the Earth’s gravity when they come so close.”
– Dr. Nicholas Moskovitz, MIT
The animation shows 2012 DA14 passing inside the Little Dipper, crossing an area about a third the size of the full Moon in 45 minutes. North is to the left.
(For a high-resolution version of the animation, click here.)
According to the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, which operates the Kitt Peak Observatory, Dr. Moskovitz’ NSF-supported team “are analyzing their data to measure any changes in the rotation rate of the asteroid after its close encounter with the Earth. Although asteroids are generally too small to resolve with optical telescopes, their irregular shape causes their brightness to change as they rotate. Measuring the rotation rate of the asteroid in this way allows the team to test models that predict how the earth’s gravity can affect close-passing asteroids. This will lead to a better understanding of whether objects like 2012 DA14 are rubble piles or single solid rocks.
“This is critical to understanding the potential hazards that other asteroids could pose if they collide with the Earth.”
So just how close was DA14’s “close pass?” Well, if Earth were just a few minutes farther along in its orbit, we would likely be looking at images of its impact rather than its departure.*
Although this particular asteroid isn’t expected to approach Earth so closely at any time in the foreseeable future — at least within the next 130 years — there are lots of such Earth-crossing objects within the inner Solar System… some we’re aware of, but many that we’re not. Identifying them and knowing as many details as possible about their orbits, shapes, and compositions is key.
Even this soon after the Feb. 15 flyby observations of 2012 DA14 have provided more information on its orbit and characteristics., allowing for fine-tuning of the data on it.
According to the Goldstone Radar Observatory web page, the details on 2012 DA14 are as follows:
Semimajor axis 1.002 AU
Inclination 10.4 deg
Perihelion distance 0.893 AU
Aphelion distance 1.110 AU
Absolute magnitude (H) 24.4
Diameter ~50 meters (+- a factor of two)
Rotation period ~6 h (N. Moskovitz, pers. comm.)
Pole direction unknown
Lightcurve amplitude ~1 mag (N. Moskovitz, pers. comm.)
Spectral class Ld (N. Moskovitz, pers. comm.)
Goldstone is currently conducting radar observations on the asteroid. A radar map of its surface and motion is anticipated in the near future.
Also, in an encouraging move by international leaders in the field, during the fiftieth session of the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, currently being held from at the United Nation Office in Vienna, near-Earth objects are on the agenda with a final report to be issued by an Action Team. Read the report PDF here.
*According to astronomer Phil Plait, while the orbits of Earth and DA14 might intersect at some point, on the 15th of February 2013 the asteroid slipped just outside of Earth’s orbit — a little over 17,000 miles shy. “It was traveling one way and the Earth another, so they could not have hit each other on this pass no matter where Earth was in its orbit,” he wrote in an email. Still, 17,000 miles is a very close call astronomically, and according to Neil deGrasse Tyson on Twitter, it “will one day hit us, like the one in Russian [sic] last night.” When? We don’t know yet. That’s why we must keep watching.
This beautiful photo, taken by ESO photo ambassador Babak Tafreshi, shows the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope array and VISTA telescope atop the peaks of the Cerro Paranal in Chile’s Atacama Desert. In the distance the Earth’s shadow extends outward toward the horizon, divided from the bluer daytime sky by the dusky pink “Belt of Venus.”
At an altitude of 2,635 meters (8,645 feet) the Paranal looks down onto a sea of clouds covering the Pacific Ocean, visible at right, whose shores lie 12 km in the distance.
Image credit: ESO/B. Tafreshi (twanight.org)