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Top Astronomy Events for May 2022

May sees a fine gathering of dawn planets, a trio of possible meteor outbursts and a spectacular total lunar eclipse.

M3

Messier 3, one of the fine globular clusters of May. Credit: Stellina/Dave Dickinson

After a long dry spell, the astronomical action returns to the night sky in the month of May. Eclipse season is also underway in May, bookended by a spectacular total lunar eclipse on May 16th. Meanwhile, planets string the dawn sky, along with the chance for several rare meteor outbursts… looking farther afield, the May sky means one thing for deep sky observers: the promise of galaxies.Read more

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Hubble Images Massive Comet C/2014 UN271

Distant comet C/2014 UN271 sets the record for the largest comet nucleus seen.

Comet

Comet C/2014 UN271 – HST images versus computer models. Credit: NASA/ESA/Man-to Hui/Macau University/David Jewitt/UCLA/Alyssa Pagan/STScI

Be thankful that a monster of a comet is staying out of the inner solar system. Recently, astronomers had a chance to turn the aging Hubble Space Telescope on distant comet C/2014 UN271 (Bernardinelli-Bernstein)… and what they saw was amazing.Read more

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Top Events for April Astronomy 2022

April astronomy sees the bright stars of winter set at dusk, with the promise of galaxies rising in the east.

The month of April sees the first full month of Spring in the northern hemisphere, and Fall in the southern. Though nights are getting ever shorter up north, the length of daytime versus night is still fairly equal across both hemispheres.

Also, keep an eye out for aurora from mid- to high latitudes in April as we come off of equinox season; the Sun just kicked off as Earthward X1 class flare yesterday, and Solar Cycle #25 is now in full swing.Read more

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NICER Sees “Hot Spot” Magnetar Merger

NASA’s NICER Observatory aboard the International Space Station sees a unique astrophysical first.

NICER

NICER (the square-shaped array, in the center of the image) on the exterior of the ISS. Credit: NASA

A unique high-flying observatory aboard the International Space Station recently completed a one-of-a-kind discovery, of a bizarre astrophysical object.

On the night of October 10, 2020, NASA’s orbiting Neil Gehrels Swift observatory spotted an anomalous source: a fast-spinning magnetar, blinking in the x-ray spectrum once every 10.4 seconds. The Neil Gehrels Swift observatory is designed to track gamma-ray bursts, but it occasionally spies other curious sources as it scans the sky across the visible light/x-ray/gamma-ray spectrum.Read more

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First Science Images From NASAs IXPE Mission

NASA’s latest x-ray observatory IXPE is open for business.

IXPE

Cassiopeia A seen in IXPE data (magenta) overlayed on Chandra imagery (blue). Credit: NASA/MSFC/IXPE

James Webb isn’t the only new space observatory ready to perform cutting-edge science in 2022. NASA just released the first science image from its new Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE). Launched at the end of 2022, the mission will explore the Universe at X-ray wavelengths in polarized light.

The image above shows a view of the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A (Cas A) in the constellation of the same name. Located near Beta Cassiopeiae in the constellation of Cassiopeia the Queen, light from Cassiopeia A would have reached the Earth in the late 17th century, perhaps recorded as a +6th magnitude star by astronomer John Flamsteed in 1680. It’s thought that the shrouds of ejected layers might have obscured the true brilliance of the supernova from Earthly eyes. Today, we know that this was actually a supernova in our own galaxy at 11,000 light-years distant, and represents one of the last supernovae known of in the Milky Way.

“The IXPE image of Cassiopeia A is as historic as the Chandra image of the same supernova remnant,” says Martin C. Weisskopf (NASA/MSFC) in a recent press release. “It demonstrates IXPE’s potential to gain new, never-before-seen information about Cassiopeia A, which is under analysis right now.”

The aftermath of the supernova explosion sent shock-waves through the surrounding interstellar medium, apparent in the image. The IXPE image shows a data overlay in magenta, versus previous data gathered by NASA’s Chandra X-ray explorer in blue. The observatory looks at targets in polarized x-ray light, adding in an essential scientific dimension on how the light is traveling through space, giving clues as to the environment from which it originated. Understanding supernovae is crucial, as they forge heavier elements that are later incorporated in later generations of stars and planets.

IXPE will be able to make a first-ever x-ray polarization map across the apparent surface of the remnant Cassiopeia A nebula, allowing astronomers to characterize the dynamics and source of energy across the nebula. Astronomers are also utilizing machine learning data to make measurements gathered by the mission even more precise.

Cas A

An X-ray map of Cas A, showing ‘hot-spots’ in the expanding nebula. Credit: IXPE/NASA

Launched on December 9th, 2021 from the Kennedy Space Center on a SpaceX Falcon-9 rocket, IXPE is the latest in a long line of space-based x-ray observatories, including Chandra, NuStar and the European Space Agency’s XMM Newton. The observatory is in an equatorial low-Earth orbit, 540 kilometers above the surface of the Earth.

IXPE

An artist’s concept of IXPE in space. Credit: IXPE.

What’s Next for IXPE

IXPE is the result of a collaboration of NASA and the Italian Space Agency, which provided the unique polarization-sensitive detectors used in the optical system. IXPE has a 2-year nominal mission, though as is the case of many space observatories, scientists and engineers will work to get the most out of IXPE at the end of its planned carreer in a possible extended mission.

Astronomers also plan on using IXPE to study black holes, neutron stars, magnetars, along with distant quasars and active galactic nuclei. The spacecraft carries three identical telescopes on a 4-metre long boom, which was extended after launch. IXPE has an effective field of view of just over 11’, nearly half the size of a Full Moon.

It will be exciting to see what new science discoveries awaits IXPE in the years to come.

Cas A

Cas A’s location in the sky. Credit: Stellarium.

You can actually see Cassiopeia A’s supernova remnant for yourself: Cassiopeia A is a small, but not impossible nebula to resolve with an amateur telescope… it appears as a wisp three arcminutes across, just under six degrees east of the +2.2 magnitude star Beta Cassiopeiae. Observers have managed to glimpse this nebula visually with a telescope aperture as small as 10”… and it should be within the grasp of Vaonis’ Stellina telescope!

venus
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Parker Solar Probe Images Venus on Flyby

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe images the surface of Venus during a recent flyby.

Venus photographed by Parker Solar Probe

Venus, imaged by Parker’s WISPR instrument. NASA/GSFC

You’ve never seen Venus like this. NASA’s Parker Solar Probe accomplished a first during a recent flyby past the planet Venus, imaging the blistering nighttime surface of the planet from space.

The first image pass occurred during the mission’s third flyby in July 2020, followed by a fourth pass on February 20th 2021 at a distance of just under 2,400 kilometers from the Venusian cloudtops. The images are courtesy of Parker’s Wide-Field Imager (WISPR), which can image in the visible light into the near-infrared. The flybys were part of seven planned gravitational assists past Venus, on Parker’s trek into the inner solar system to study the Sun.

Launched on August 12th, 2018 from Cape Canaveral atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket, Parker Solar Probe is designed primarily to study the Sun close up. To this end, the mission will make several looping perihelion passes, getting as close as 6.9 million kilometers (just under 10 solar radii) from the Sun and moving at over 690,000 kilometers per hour by 2025. (Read more about Parker Solar Probe here.)

Though the mission is designed for solar astronomy, the Parker Solar Probe is also giving us some unique perspectives of enigmatic Venus during each pass. The images from WISPR show diverse surface features, including plains, rugged terrain and plateaus. A luminescent halo due to the tenuous presence of oxygen can even be seen in the video.

Venus seen from Parker Solar Probe

Venus seen from WISPR during the February 2021 flyby. NASA/GSFC.

“We’re thrilled with the science insights Parker Solar Probe has provided thus far,” says Nicola Fox (NASA Headquarters-Heliophysics Division) in a recent press release. “Parker continues to outperform our expectations, and we are excited that these novel observations taken during our gravity assist maneuver can help advance Venus research in unexpected ways.”

Remember, though, we’re seeing a nighttime view of the surface though a thick blanket of clouds: that surface is glowing in the infrared because its extremely hot, in the range of 460 Celsius. The extreme heat and pressure on the surface of Venus (90 times that of sea level here on Earth) assured that Venera missions sent to the planet by the Soviet Union in the 1970s only lasted a scant few hours before succumbing to the harsh environment.

Why Imaging Venus is Hard

It’s a cosmic irony that the brightest and closest planet in the skies of Earth is also perpetually shrouded in clouds, and presents a blank white disk. We’ve only just begun to pull back the veil on mysterious Venus with the advent of the Space Age, to reveal a hellscape of a world. The persistent glow captured by Parker may even explain a curious phenomena on Venus reported by observers over the centuries, known as ‘ashen light.’ This is a faint glow perceived across the planet’s night side. On the Moon, Ashen light is easy to explain, as sunlight reflected off the Earth… Venus, however, has no convenient nearby reflector in space.

What’s Next for Parker

Though WISPR was designed to study the solar wind, its also proving its worth looking at Venus as well. The initial plans were to study the Venusian cloud flow patterns, but it actually saw all the way down to the surface of the planet, which surprised researchers.

The Electromagnetic Fields Investigation (FIELDS) instrument also used radio wave detections to characterize how the planet’s atmosphere interacts with the 11-year solar cycle, and WISPR also caught sight of the tenuous dust ring surrounding Venus in its orbit.

Next, Parker will make six more perihelion passes near the Sun in 2022 and early 2023, followed by the penultimate pass 3,939 kilometers from Venus on August 21st, 2023.

Parker is a great example of how versatile missions can produce unexpected science results.

ATLAS
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ATLAS Asteroid Hunting Network Now Fully Operational

ATLAS, a vital sentinel in the search for near Earth asteroids is now fully operational.

ATLAS

From right to left: an artist’s conception of NEO Surveyor (Credit: NASA). DART at Didymos (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins). ATLAS-El Sauce observatory in Chile (Credit: University of Hawai’i). ATLAS-Sutherland observatory in South Africa (Credit: Willie Koorts (SAAO).

It’s one of the most vital endeavors in modern astronomy. NASA recently announced that the Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS) now is, with the addition of two separate southern hemisphere sites—complete. Operated by the University of Hawai’i Institute for Astronomy on behalf of the agency’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) the addition of two new sites, one in Chile and another in South Africa, now includes four telescopes overall, in addition to the two northern hemisphere telescopes based and Maunaloa and Haleakala in Hawai’i, now affords all-sky coverage of both hemispheres of the sky every night, looking for near Earth asteroids.

“An important part of planetary defense is finding asteroids before they find us, so if necessary, we can get them before they get us,” says Kelly Fast (NASA/PDCO) in a recent press release. “With the addition of these two telescopes, ATLAS is now capable of searching the entire sky every 24 hours, making it an important asset for NASA’s continous effort to find, track and monitor NEOs.”

The first two telescopes were developed under a 2013 grant from NASA’s Near-Earth Objects Objects Observations Program, and came online in 2017. The two new telescopes are located at the El Sauce Observatory in the Rio Hurtado Valley in Chile, and the Sutherland Observatory in South Africa, respectively. Each site features a 0.5 meter telescope, capable of scanning a 5-degree wide swath of the sky 100 times the size of the Full Moon. Since 2017, ATLAS has discovered over 700 near-Earth Asteroids (NEAs) and 66 comets and counting, many of which later put on a fine celestial show.

The system has already demonstrated the viability of the “Last Alert” part of its name: two small asteroids –2018 LA and 2019 MO—were detected just hours before impact. The ATLAS-Sutherland observatory has already made its very first solo detection: asteroid 2022 BK, a 100-meter asteroid that passed 5.6 million miles from the Earth on January 28th, 2022.

Tracking near-Earth asteroids is especially tricky for large professional telescopes, as they’re relatively fast movers against the starry background. With a wide field of view and an agile response time, the ATLAS system excels in nabbing new objects that come within the sphere of the Earth-Moon system, about a quarter of a million miles distant.

Worldwide coverage is critical: until ATLAS came online, we were often only hearing about close asteroid passes near Earth after they occurred. Chelyabinsk was also a wake-up call, as a 20-metre asteroid exploded over the Russian city of 1.1 million the morning after Valentine’s Day 2013. This particular space rock snuck in at Earth undetected from a sunward direction.

Another mission may soon take this vigilance against low-flying rocks into space. NASA’s Near-Earth Object Surveyor mission (NEO Surveyor) recently received the green-light to move ahead into Preliminary Design/Key Decision Point-B. This mission would launch in 2026, and use a 50-centimeter mirror to hunt for NEOs in the infrared from its Sun-Earth Lagrange Point 1 (L1) vantage point.

But we’re not waiting for the hazardous asteroids to come to us. NASA’s DART (Double Asteroid Re-Direction Test) launched in November 2021 headed to impact asteroid 65803 Didymos’ moon Dimorphos in late September/early October of this year. OSIRIS-Rex is bringing samples back from 101955 Bennu on September 24th, 2023, an asteroid that could, centuries from now, possibly hit the Earth. And launching along with nine other smallsat missions on SLS Artemis-1 this April is NEA Scout, a small solar sail mission aiming to intercept the 15-metre asteroid 2020 GE in 2024.

We can never know too much about hazardous asteroids and our local solar neighborhood. Expect to see a lot more comets named ‘ATLAS’ very soon.

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Top Astronomy Events for February 2022

February sees a bashful sky scene, with the planets huddled near the Sun.

NSP

Dusk at the Nebraska Star Party. Credit: Dave Dickinson

The month of February is thankfully a short one for the denizens of the northern hemisphere. The shortest month of the year and the last full month of astronomical winter up north, February is also the only month that cannot contain two Moons of like phase (i.e., two Full Moons, two New Moons etc. You see this in action in 2022 (more to come on that!)Read more

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Tracing “Meteor Smoke” With SOFIE

A recent NASA mission may have solved the mystery of  ‘meteor smoke’ as the source of a key element.

Noctilucent Clouds

High altitude noctilucent clouds, seen from the ISS. Credit: NASA

Watch the night sky long enough, and you’re bound to see one. On any given evening, it’s a common sight to see a meteor slide silently by. These are from ancient streams of dust particles orbiting the Sun, laid down by comets and asteroids. The Earth plows through these streams daily, carving out a 12,750- kilometer wide tunnel in its path around the Sun.

When these cosmic dust motes burn up, they dissipate in the Earth’s atmosphere. This ‘meteor smoke’ has been, until recently, tough to study: most of it lingers high in the tenuous atmosphere, gently mixing with lower layers over time. Balloon and sub-orbital rocket-based detectors have only hinted at its existence.

Over the past decade, however, a mission has been able to carry out a first survey of this little known layer. NASA’s Solar Occultation for Ice Experiment (SOFIE) launched on NASA’s Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere (AIM) Earth observation mission in 2007. From its vantage point in low Earth orbit, SOFIE looks at the thin twilight region just along the limb of the Earth, illuminated by the Sun. This allows it to see tiny suspended aerosol particles held aloft high in the atmosphere.

This also allows SOFIE to obtain the spectrum of elusive meteor smoke, seeing key elements such as magnesium, iron, silicon and oxygen. The Earth scoops up from 2 to 200 tons of space dust and material each day. Data from SOFIE could help scientists not only refine this number, but work towards understanding its composition.

“This was tremendous progress even though we had a range of possible answers,” says Mark Hervig (GATS Inc.) in a recent press release. “There are questions and mysteries in our atmosphere that meteoric smoke may play a role in… it’s really frontier stuff.”

Luckily, scientists have another comparative source: meteor dust collected in the high and dry plains of Antarctica by a recent expedition out of the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom. Material collected on this survey turned out to be made up of the mineral olivine, and contained the same ratio of magnesium, silicon and oxygen seen in SOFIE observations.

The Impact of Meteor Smoke

These two key measurements allowed scientists to revise the amount of material entering the Earth’s atmosphere daily down to about 25 tons per day, on the lower end of the scale. But there’s lots of other roles that meteor smoke may play in the environment.

One is the formation of high altitude noctilucent or iridescent clouds. These are seen shining high in the sky at high latitudes at dusk, and their displays increase during the summertime. Water molecules and ice are the suspected source for noctilucent clouds, and these need a tiny particle to cling to and nucleate around. One possible source (along with rocket exhaust from launches) is meteor smoke. The occurrence of noctilucent clouds seems to be increasing over the past century, perhaps due to the increasing amount of moisture in the atmosphere resulting from climate change.

(Meteor) Smoke on the Water

Meteor smoke may even play a key role in propagating life on Earth as well. Specifically, the energy-generating process of photosynthesis requires the element iron to work… but for plankton at sea, iron is often scarce. Some of this key element does blow in as dust and sand off of Earth’s deserts, but recently, scientists have suggested another source for iron fertilization: the steady downward rain of meteor smoke.

This cosmic source may just be providing a key element needed to fuel life on Earth. A fascinating thought to consider, the next time you see a lingering smoke train from a brilliant bolide meteor, piercing the night sky.

Exomoon
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Second Potential New Exomoon Discovered

Researchers delving into the Kepler data turn up a good exomoon candidate.

Exomoon

An artist’s conception of a giant exomoon around a remote world. Credit: NASA

When it comes to exoplanet discoveries, ‘exomoons,’ or moons orbiting worlds around stars beyond our solar system are the hot new deal. After all, every planet in our solar system (except Mercury and Venus) has moons, and most have several. It only stands to reason that most Jupiter-sized exoplanets should also possess moons of their own.

But finding the signal in the noise hasn’t been easy. To date, 4,928 exoplanets are known of and counting. Of these, a good portion are known of due to the transiting method of detection, watching as a tell-tale tiny dip in the star’s light occurs as the planet transits or passes in front of its host star from our line of sight. This method, however, has its drawbacks, as it preferentially detects ‘hot-Jupiters,’ or large gas giant worlds in tight orbits.

Finding a moon in an orbit around a transiting exoplanet is even trickier, as researchers need to find an even smaller ‘signal-within-a-signal’ inside an already subtle fluctuation. This signal also needs to be teased out of starspot activity and the intrinsic variability of the host star itself.

“Exomoons are intrinsically smaller than the planets and thus more challenging to find,” Says David Kipping, Columbia University astronomer and researcher on the study. “Further, their signals occur almost simultaneous to the planetary signal, meaning they land on top of each other and are difficult to disentangle.”

The NASA-supported study published in the Journal Nature Astronomy  involved exoplanet researchers from around the world. The team looked at 70 candidates in the Kepler Space Telescope data. Launched in 2009, Kepler stared at a section of sky spanning the constellations Cygnus, Hercules and Lyra along the galactic plane for four years. A failure of a second of four reaction wheels saw Kepler ending its final days in an extended exoplanet hunt along the plane of the ecliptic, using the solar wind pressure as a third ‘reaction wheel’ to stabilize the spacecraft.

The worlds were selected because they passed criterion for either showing minute timing variations in the data, or hinted at direct transit signals of the moons themselves.

“We don’t know for sure, but we but hypothesize that Jupiter-like planets would be one excellent place to look, given the abundance of moons around Jupiter and Saturn and the relatively massive disks of material thought to exist around such planets whilst they form.” says Kipping. “Another interesting place to look is rocky planets resembling Earth. In either case, planets close to the star are best avoided, since the star can essentially rip off moons from such close-in planets.” Of the candidates, only three exhibited smaller signals perhaps indicative of orbiting exomoons. But only one passed final muster upon further scrutiny: Kepler-1708 b.

The first earlier potential exomoon discovery was Kepler-1625 b-i, found in 2017, though this claim has also been disputed in recent years.

“There is really only just one previous candidate to compare to,” says Kipping. “I would describe this is a signal for which there best astrophysical model identified to explain the data in a planet+moon scenario, which is statistically strongly favored over the alternative astrophysical model of a planet alone. Further, we can find no cause for concern of suspicion to reject this model (versus) extensive testing of the other information we have for this target.”

The Strange World of Kepler-1708 b-i

The system where the discovery was made is interesting in its own right. Kepler-1708 is a sun-like F-type main sequence star slightly more massive than our Sun, 1,667 parsecs (~5,500 light-years) distant. Kepler-b is a 4.6 Jupiter mass world in a 737 day orbit, 1.6 AU from its primary. The suspected exomoon Kepler-1708 b-i is a sub-Neptune sized-world in a 4.6 day orbit, 500 million miles (twice the earth-Moon distance) from its primary.

Are exomoons habitable? Kepler-1708 b’s orbit is roughly equal in size to Mars in our own solar system, which hints at the idea that Kepler-1708 b-i might not be a half-bad place, climate-wise. Tantalizing discoveries like Kepler b-i will be prime targets for the recently launched and unfolded James Webb Space Telescope, once it reaches its home at L2 next week and begins its lengthy commissioning phase. JWST is expected to begin science operations in mid-2022.

Kepler 1708

The rough location of Kepler-1708 in Cygnus. Credit: Stelalrium

Finding Kepler-1708 with a backyard telescope is a difficult but not impossible prospect, as the primary star shines at a faint magnitude +16 in the constellation Cygnus. The star Kepler-1708 is not far from +2.9 magnitude Delta Cygni. Another transit sequence for Kepler-1708 b-i will occur in early 2023, and may confirm or deny the exomoon claim.

Expect to see the menagerie of distant worlds grow in coming years as more exoplanet surveys come online, to include the disocovery of more elusive exomoons.