Eros Parallax Project Begins!

Join the project

Tonight many amateur astronomers and school classes are eagerly awaiting the asteroid Eros, now at its closest to Earth.  From January 28 to February 3 they will take an image of Eros either through a telescope or with a telephoto lens. Photographs of Eros submitted by amateur astronomers around the world will show slight differences in the asteroid’s position due to parallax. Along with each observer’s location, this parallax information will be used to find a precise distance to Eros, just like professional astronomers did in January 1931.

The Eros Parallax Project is first and foremost fun to take part in. You don’t have to be an experienced astrophotographer to be able to make valuable observations. An ordinary SLR camera with telephoto lens, mounted on a tripod, could be enough. Using free, online software you will determine the celestial coordinates of Eros on your images and submit the data to the project website. With the data submitted by you and the other participants, the distance to Eros will be calculated. The instructions on the project website are clear and simple to follow.

The Eros Parallax Project is also a great educational opportunity; the data and submitted images will be made available for classrooms to use to find the distance themselves. This resource will last forever, and will certainly inspire some young astronomers to take part the next time Eros comes close to Earth again. It will also prepare classrooms for the even rarer event coming in June – the transit of Venus. Along with enjoying the night sky, developing observing skills and gaining an understanding of our solar system, participants and the students who benefit will repeat the work of the professional astronomers of the 1930s and learn about real research.

See the Eros Parallax Project web page for more information on how to take part.

The Sky is Falling – or is it?

With increased news coverage of recent months of large satellites/space craft re-entering the Earths atmosphere and returning to Earth, I thought it worthwhile to look at just what is up there!

Last September, the decommissioned NASA Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) fell back to Earth in an uncontrolled re-entry at 0400 UT Saturday, September 24 last year somewhere in the Southern Pacific Ocean between Australia and South America, well away form land. UARS weighed 5,900 kg and NASA announced in early September that at least 26 pieces of debris were expected to survive re-entry and strike the Earth’s surface, the largest of which had an estimated mass of 158.30 kg possibly reaching the surface at a velocity of 44 metres per second or 160 km/h. Smaller pieces were expected to strike the surface at up to 107 metres per second or 390 km/hr.

Then between 1:45 UT and 2:15 UT October 23rd, the 2,426kg German X-ray satellite ROSAT bid farewell to space via a fiery plunge into the atmosphere in the early hours of Sunday. Interest was high in ROSAT due to its 400kg primary mirror, which held the potential of surviving the break up of the spacecraft in the atmosphere during entry. The space telescope entered the Earth’s atmosphere somewhere over the Bay of Bengal and again there were no reports of debris hitting the ground having been reported.

Then in January this year the 13,200 kg Russian Phobos-Grunt Mars Probe returned to Earth somewhere in the Pacific Ocean west of Chile after a failed attempt to fly to Mars. The spacecraft was launched on November 9th and after weeks of failed attempts to regain control it made an uncontrolled re-entry at 1800 UT on January 15th this year. A Chinese Mars Orbiter, Yinghou-1 was also on board. Roughly 7.51 metric tonnes of highly toxic hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide were on board, according to the head of Roscosmos. This was of most concern. Again no eye witness accounts of the actual landing and re-entry were recorded and no reports of any pieces actually making land fall.

In a recent report in NASA’s Orbital Debris Quarterly newsletter, it appears that the Earth’s atmosphere has been puffing up in response to increasing levels of Ultra Violet (UV) radiation from sunspots. UV levels increase as sunspot activity on the Sun increases. This is good news for satellite operators, because a puffed up atmosphere helps clean up low-Earth orbit.  One of the greatest risks to satellites is being hit by debris or another satellite. Fortunately, according to the report, the number of catalogued debris in Earth orbit actually decreased during 2011.

Table fo Debris Re-Entry from Chinese Weather Satellite Fengyun-1C destroyed by their own Anti-Satelite Test in 2007. From Spaceweather.com

Orbital debris, or “space junk,” is any man-made object in orbit around the Earth that no longer serves a useful purpose. Space junk can be bad news for an orbiting satellite. On February 11, 2009, a U.S. communications satellite owned by a private company called Iridium collided with a non-functioning Russian satellite. The collision destroyed both satellites and created a field of debris that endangers other orbiting satellites.

Since the launch of Sputnik on 4 October 1957, more than 4,600 launches have placed some 6000 satellites into orbit. Currently about 800 satellites are used operationally for science and other applications. Space debris comprise the ever-increasing amount of inactive space hardware in orbit around the Earth as well as fragments of spacecraft that have broken up, exploded or otherwise become abandoned.

An Artists Impression of the Amount of Space Debris in Low Earth Orbit - From ESA

The debris field comprises burnt-out launch vehicle upper stages, dead or inactive spacecraft and other objects ranging in size from as big as an automobile to microscopic dust.

To minimize the risk of collision between spacecraft and space junk, the U.S. Space Surveillance Network tracks all debris larger than 10 cm. These images represent all man-made objects, both functioning and useful objects and debris, currently being tracked. The images were made from models used to track debris in Earth orbit. Of the approximately 19,000 manmade objects larger than 10 cm in Earth orbit as of July 2009, most orbit close to the Earth.

In January 11, 2007, China intentionally destroyed one of its aging weather satellites – Fengyun-1C by anti-satellite (ASAT) device. The successful test led to what has been the largest single space debris incident in history in terms of new objects. It is estimated that it created more than 3,200 pieces of trackable debris, that is debris that is around 10cm in size or larger and over 35,000 pieces between 1cm and 10cm and more than or larger, and 1 million pieces between 1 mm and 1cm. Even though only 6% of the total 3218 catalogued debris from the ill-advised engagement had re-entered by the end of 2011, half of these debris pieces fell out of orbit in the past 12 months.

At 16:56 UT on February 10, 2009, the first major space debris collision occurred between the deactivated 950 kilograms Russian satellite Kosmos 2251 and an operational 560 kilograms communications satellite, Iridium 33 some 800 km over northern Siberia. The relative speed of impact was about 11.7 kilometres per second or approximately 42,120 kilometres per hour. Both satellites were destroyed and the collision scattered considerable debris, which poses an elevated risk to spacecraft. The collision created a debris cloud, although accurate estimates of the number of pieces of debris are not yet available. Pieces of this debris are now accelerating their departure from Earth orbit. In the absence of a new major satellite breakup, the overall orbital debris population should continue to decrease during 2012 and 2013.

Since it is estimated that there are millions of pieces of man made debris out there floating around, and all of it combined weighs about 5,500 tons, does all this space junk create any problems for the International Space Station (ISS) — or even people on the ground, is a question that I get asked a fair bit.

Firstly, in relation to the ISS, space debris objects are tracked remotely from the ground, and the station crew can be notified. This allows for, what is known as, a Debris Avoidance Manoeuvre (DAM) to be carried out. This is where the thrusters on the Russian Orbital Segment are used to alter the station’s orbital altitude, avoiding the debris. DAMs are not uncommon; taking place if computational models show the debris will approach within a certain threat distance. Eight DAMs had been performed prior to March 2009, the first seven between October 1999 and May 2003. Usually the orbit is raised by one or two kilometres by means of an increase in orbital velocity of the order of 1 m/s. Unusually there was a lowering of 1.7 km on 27 August 2008, the first such lowering for 8 years. There were two DAMs in 2009, on 22 March and 17 July.

If a threat from orbital debris is identified too late for a DAM to be safely conducted, the station crew close all the hatches aboard the station and retreat into their Soyuz spacecraft, so that they would be able to evacuate in the event the debris damaged the ISS. This partial station evacuation occurred on 13 March 2009 and 28 June 2011.

Ballistic panels, also called micrometeorite shielding, are incorporated into the station to protect pressurised sections and critical systems. The type and thickness of these panels varies depending upon their predicted exposure to damage.

Now what about those of us here on Earth, is there a possibility space junk could fall back to the ground? Everything in orbit will eventually be pulled back down by Earth’s gravity. When that happens depends on how high the object is and how fast it’s going. The higher the altitude, the longer the object will take to fall, and it’ll take even longer the faster it’s speeding around the Earth. Some of these objects could stay in orbit for thousands of years.

And to the more important question – what are the risks of getting hit on the head? Fortunately, most debris burns up during re-entry, and no one has ever been killed by space junk There have been only 2 recorded instances I can find of people being hit by space debris and both lived t tell the tale; a 6 year old boy in China in November 2002 and Lottie Williams in Oklahoma in the US in 1997. UK bookmakers note the chances of space junk landing on a person are at least 20 billion to one.

 

Earth directed Coronal Mass Ejection

Active sunspot 1401 erupted on Jan. 20th, between 02:15 and 03:30 AEDST. The long-duration blast produced an M3-class solar flare and a CME that appears to be heading toward Earth.

Although at the time of writing it is now overdue to hit the Earth’s magnetic field which has led to NOAA forecasters to downgrade the chance of polar geomagnetic storms to 10% – 25%. Still for those lucky enough to live in the right place still a chance for some awesome light shows.

 

Barringer Grant Applications for 2012 Now Being Accepted

Application deadline for grants from the Barringer Family Fund for Meteorite Impact Research is April 6, 2012. This program provides 3 to 5 competitive grants each year in the range of $2500 to $5000 USD for support of field research at known or suspected impact sites worldwide. Grant funds may be used to aid with travel and subsistence costs, as well as laboratory and computer analysis of research samples and findings. Masters, doctoral, and post-doctoral students enrolled in formal university programs are eligible. For more details and an application, please go to: http://www.lpi.usra.edu/science/kring/Awards/Barringer_Fund/index.html

The Barringer Family Fund has been established as a memorial to recognize the contributions of Brandon, Moreau, Paul, and Richard Barringer to the field of meteoritics and the Barringer family’s strong interest and support over many years in research and student education. In addition to its memorial nature, the Fund also reflects the family’s long-standing commitment to responsible stewardship of The Barringer Meteorite Crater and the family’s steadfast resolve in maintaining the crater as a unique scientific research and education site.

Globe at Night Program – First Opportunity to Participate in 2012

http://www.globeatnight.org/

The GLOBE at Night program is an international citizen-science campaign to raise public awareness of the impact of light pollution by inviting citizen-scientists to measure their night sky brightness and send their observations to a website from a computer or smart phone. Light pollution threatens not only our “right to starlight”, but can affect energy consumption, wildlife and health. The GLOBE at Night campaign has run for two weeks each winter/spring for the last six years. People in 115 countries have contributed 66,000 measurements, making GLOBE at Night one of the most successful light pollution awareness campaigns.

January Evening Skies for Southern Hemisphere Readers

Venus and Jupiter are the ‘evening stars’ which appear soon after sunset with the brilliance of  Venus is lowest in the west setting about 9.30pm by the end of the Month. In a telescope, now, it looks like a gibbous moon. Venus is still on the far side of the sun from us around 180 million km away but gradually catching up to us again.

Jupiter is above and to the North of Venus as the Sun goes down and it will be setting around 11.30 pm by the end of the month. Its four big moons are easily seen in a small telescope or good binoculars, looking like four little stars lined up on either side of the planet. It is now about 720 million km away as we move to the far side of the sun away from it.

Sirius is the brightest real star that is visible in our evening sky at present. It appears at around 60 degrees above the Eastern horizon just after dusk. Known as ‘the Dog Star’, it marks the head of Canis Major the big dog. A group of stars to the right of it makes the dog’s hindquarters and tail, upside down just now. Sirius is the brightest star in the sky both because it is relatively close, being only nine light years away, and the fact that it is 23 times brighter than the sun. Procyon, in the northeast and below Sirius, marks the smaller of the two dogs that follow Orion.

To the left of Sirius, as the sky darkens, Rigel and Betelgeuse the brightest stars in Orion the hunter will appear. Between them, but fainter, is a line of three stars making Orion’s belt. Rigel is a bluish supergiant star, which is much hotter than the Sun and some 70,000 times brighter. It is located around 800 light years away. Orange Betelgeuse, below Orion’s belt, is a red-giant star, cooler than the sun but hundreds of times bigger. It is actually a ball of extremely thin hot gas. To us in the South we tend to remember Orion as the Saucepan as this appears to be the bottom of  the Saucepan. A faint line of stars above and right of the belt is the pot’s handle or Orion’s sword. It has a glowing cloud at its centre: the Orion Nebula, a place where stars are being born. This is visible in good binoculars as a cloudy fuzzy area.

Left of Orion is the V-shaped pattern of stars makes up the face of Taurus the Bull. The V-shaped group is also known as the Hyades cluster. It is 150 light years away. Orange looking Aldebaran, Arabic for ‘the eye of the bull’, is not a member of he cluster but on the line of sight, is about half the cluster’s distance away from us.

Left again, toward the north and lower, is the Pleiades/ /Seven Sisters or Subaru star cluster depending on where you hail from. It is a pretty cluster with a bit of fuzziness (nebulosity surrounding it) even to the naked eye and is even more impressive in binoculars. The cluster is around 70 million years old and located about 400 light years away from us. There is a very colourful looking star Capella which is not too high above the horizon in the North – in the thicker lower atmosphere,  it often looks like a disco star as it twinkles very prettily due to the effects of the atmosphere.

Low in the south is the Southern Cross, and Beta and Alpha Centauri, often called ‘The Pointers’. Alpha Centauri is the closest naked-eye star, 4.3 light years away. A telescope shows it is a binary star: two stars orbiting each other in 80 years. Beta Centauri, like most of the stars in Crux, is a blue-giant star hundreds of light years away. Canopus is also another very bright star, very luminous and distant: 13,000 times brighter than the sun and 300 light years away.

The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, (LMC and SMC) are high in the southern sky and easily seen by eye on a dark moonless night. They are two small companion galaxies about 160,000 and 200,000 light years away who over time are orbiting our own Milky Way. They look like fuzzy light clouds in the southern skies above and even further to the South than the Southern Cross.

All of these objects mentioned above can be seen without a telescope or binoculars between sunset and around 9.30pm and makes for a great after dinner exercise for the family to see how many you can find.

The Milky Way is in the eastern sky, brightest in the southeast toward Crux. It can be traced towards the north but becomes faint below Orion. The Milky Way is our edgewise view of the galaxy, the pancake of billions of stars of which the sun is just one. Binoculars show many star clusters and a few glowing gas clouds in the Milky Way, particularly in the Carina region.

Mars, is rising by the end of the month before 10:30pm and looks like a bright orange-red star. It is brightening as the Earth moves closer to it. It is around 140 million km away so appears quite small in a telescope.

Saturn will rise in the east around 1:00 am by the end of the month, making a pretty sight as a pair with the bright white star, Spica, which is the brightest star in Virgo, above and to the left of Saturn. Saturn is around 1,460 million km from us.

Click on Images Above to see sky charts from North South East and West horizons around 9.30pm as seen from NSW Australia

Welcome to my new Blog Site!

Unfortunately thanks to malicious coders I have needed to remove the previous blog and now will start afresh. Here I will try to keep up to date news on what is happening in the skies – particularly for those of us Down Under and what is happening out in Space. 2012 promises to be a great year for astronomy.