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Name Pluto’s moons

Image showing Pluto's known moons

This image, taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, shows five moons orbiting the distant, icy dwarf planet Pluto. The green circle marks the unnamed moon, designated P5, as photographed by Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 on July 7 2012. The unnamed moon P4 was uncovered in Hubble imagery in 2011.

THE DISCOVERER OF PLUTO’S two tiniest moons are inviting the public to help select names for the new moons. By tradition, the moons of Pluto have names associated with Hades and the underworld.

“The Greeks were great storytellers, and they have given us a colourful cast of characters to work with,” said Mark Showalter, Senior Research Scientist at the Carl Sagan Centre of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California.

Pluto has five moons – Charon (discovered 1978), Nix and Hydra (discovered 2005), and two known simply as P4 and P5, discovered in 2011 and 2012 respectively. Astronomers are now looking for names for P4 and P5.

Moons of the underworld

All the bodies in the Pluto system are named after mythological figures of the underworld – Pluto, the god of the underworld; Charon, the ferryman of the dead; Nix, Greek goddess of darkness and night; and Hydra, the nine-headed serpent that battled Hercules.

Showalter and the teams of astronomers who made the discoveries will select two names based on the outcome of the voting. Like Pluto’s three other moons, Charon, Nix and Hydra, they need to be assigned names derived from Greek or Roman mythology.

Artist's impression of the New Horizons spacecraft passing Pluto in 2015

Artist’s impression of the New Horizons spacecraft passing Pluto in 2015.

Beginning today, people can vote by visiting http://plutorocks.seti.org/, and select from a list of suggest ‘underworld’ names.

Visitors to the website will also be able to submit their own suggestions. These will be reviewed by the team and could be added to the ballot. Voting will end February 25, 2013. The final names will be announced after their formal approval by the International Astronomical Union.

First mission to Pluto

P4 was discovered in 2011 in images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. P5 was discovered a year later during a more intensive search for previously unseen objects orbiting the distant, dwarf planet. The moons are only 20 to 30 kilometres across.

Currently, Pluto is receiving special scrutiny by astronomers, because NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is slated to arrive there in July 2015.

Launched in 2006, the craft is carrying some of the ashes of the man who discovered Pluto in 1930, Clyde Tombaugh.

A Google+ Hangout is scheduled on February 11 at 11:00am US PST (19:00 GMT) with two of the scientists involved in the discovery. Mark Showalter is from the SETI Institute, and Hal Weaver is a researcher at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

Questions from viewers will be taken during the event using Twitter hashtag #PlutoRocks, the SETI Institute Facebook page and the Google hangout.

Adapted from information issued by the SETI Institute. Pluto moons image courtesy NASA; ESA; M. Showalter, SETI Institute. New Horizons graphic courtesy NASA.

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NASA to keep watch on asteroid

2012 DA14 trajectory past Earth

Asteroid 2012 DA14 will pass close to the Earth on February 15 (February 16, Australian time) – so close in fact, that it will be nearer to us than the ring of communications and weather satellites that orbit our planet.

THE RECORD-SETTING CLOSE APPROACH of an asteroid on February 15 (early morning February 16, Australian time) is an exciting opportunity for scientists, and a research team will use US National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) and NASA telescopes to gain a key clue that will help them predict the future path of this nearby cosmic neighbour.

A 45-metre-wide asteroid called 2012 DA14, discovered just a year ago, will pass only 28,000 kilometres above the Earth’s surface. That’s closer than the geosynchronous communication and weather satellites. While the object definitely will not strike the Earth, this is a record close approach for an object of this size. Astronomers around the world are preparing to take advantage of the event to study the asteroid.

A team including NRAO astronomer Michael Busch will use a novel observing technique to determine which way the space rock is spinning as it speeds on its orbit through the solar system. The direction of its spin is an important factor in predicting how the object’s orbit will change over time.

“Knowing the direction of spin is essential to accurately predicting its future path, and thus determining just how close it will get to Earth in the coming years,” Busch said.

Radar observations

Busch’s team will use the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) and the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) antennae at Pie Town and Los Alamos, New Mexico, along with a radar on NASA’s 70-metre-diameter antenna at Goldstone, California.

The Goldstone antenna will transmit a powerful beam of radio waves toward the asteroid, and NRAO’s New Mexico antennae will receive the waves reflected from the asteroid’s surface.

Because of the asteroid’s uneven surface and the different reflectivity of portions of the surface, the reflected radar signal will have a characteristic signature, or ‘speckles,’ as seen from Earth. By measuring which antenna in a widely-separated pair receives the speckle pattern first, the astronomers can learn which way the asteroid is spinning.

This way of using the telescopes is significantly different to their normal astronomical observing, and the research team has developed special techniques for processing the data.

Yarkovsky Effect graphic

How the Yarkovsky Effect slows an asteroid’s orbital motion; opposite rotation direction would speed up the orbital motion.

Asteroid’s ‘afternoon’ heat

How does this tell anything about the asteroid’s orbital changes? Just as the afternoon is the warmest part of the day on Earth, the space rock develops a warm region that radiates infrared light in its maximum amount during ‘afternoon’ on the asteroid. That outgoing infrared radiation provides a gentle but firm jet-like push to the asteroid.

The direction of the asteroid’s spin determines whether ‘afternoon’ is either forward or rearward of its direction of motion.

If the hot spot is forward of the direction of motion, the infrared push will slow the asteroid’s orbital speed, and if the hot spot is rearward of the direction of motion, it will speed up the orbital motion. This effect, over time, can make a significant change in the orbit. This is called the Yarkovsky Effect, after the engineer who first identified it.

“When the asteroid passes close to the Earth or another large body, its orbit can be changed quickly by the gravitational effect of the larger body, but the Yarkovsky Effect, though smaller, is at work all the time,” Busch said.

Adapted from information issued by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. Yarkovsky Effect graphic by Alexandra Bolling, NRAO / AUI / NSF. Orbit graphic by P. Chodas, NASA / JPL.

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GALLERY: Orion’s fiery sword

WISE image of the Orion Nebula

The Orion Nebula – seen here at infrared wavelengths in a WISE space observatory image – is a dusty, turbulent region where stars are being born.

THE TANGLE OF CLOUDS and stars that lie in Orion’s sword is showcased in a new, expansive view from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, spacecraft.

The constellation Orion, named for a mythical hunter, is visible in evening skies throughout the world from about December through April. The constellation appears tranquil and still to the naked eye, but in the hunter’s ‘sword’, what at first appears to be a slightly fuzzy star is actually a turbulent cauldron of stellar birth – the Orion Nebula.

WISE captured this vast view of the nebula in infrared light, picking up the glow from interstellar dust heated by newborn stars. The colours green and red in this false-colour view, highlight the warmed dust, while the white regions are even hotter. The energy from massive stars has ‘burned’ through the dust, carving out cavities, the largest of which is seen at the centre of the picture.

Astronomers think that our Sun was probably born in a similar cloud some five billion years ago. Over time, the cloud would have dispersed and the stars would have drifted apart, leaving us more isolated in space. The crowded newborn stars in the Orion nebula are less than 10 million years old – billions of years from now, they will likely spread out.

Adapted from information issued by NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA.

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Next-gen spacecraft on display in Florida

TWO OF THE NEXT GENERATION of space vehicles are going through their paces on the ground in Florida.

The Orion Ground Test Vehicle is seen in the photo below in the high bay of the Operations and Checkout Building at the Kennedy Space Centre, during a tour for media representatives.

Orion is the spacecraft designed to carry crews to space beyond low-Earth orbit. It will provide emergency abort capability, sustain the crew during the space travel and provide safe re-entry from deep space return velocities.

In many respects, Orion is similar to the old Apollo command module, but with the ability of carry at least four astronauts (Apollo could carry only three).

It was announced only weeks ago, that the Orion service module will be provided by the European Space Agency, based upon its successful Automated Transfer Vehicle uncrewed cargo craft.

The first unpiloted test flight of the Orion is scheduled in 2014 atop a Delta IV rocket, and in 2017, on a Space Launch System rocket.

The Orion Ground Test Vehicle at the Kennedy Space Centre

The Orion Ground Test Vehicle at the Kennedy Space Centre

The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft

The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft, undergoing processing for the system’s second operational flight.

Meanwhile, the Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, Dragon spacecraft with solar array fairings attached, is seen inside a processing hangar at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The spacecraft will launch on the upcoming SpaceX CRS-2 mission, perhaps in March. The flight will be the second commercial resupply mission to the International Space Station by SpaceX.

NASA has contracted for a total of 12 commercial resupply flights from SpaceX and eight from the Orbital Sciences Corp.

Adapted from information issued by NASA. Photos by Frankie Martin and Kim Shiflett.

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What’s up? Night sky for February 2013

Night sky on February 3, 2013

Saturn and the Moon will appear near each other on February 3, 2013.

Except where indicated, all of the phenomena described here can be seen with the unaided eye. And unless otherwise specified, dates and times are for the Australian Eastern Standard Time zone, and sky directions are from the point of view of an observer in the Southern Hemisphere.

Feb 3

If you’re a night owl, look out to the east after midnight and you’ll see the Moon near the horizon. Below and to its right is what seems to be a bright star. It’s actually the planet Saturn. If you have access to even a small telescope, take a look. Its rings never fail to entrance. The gas giant planet has 62 confirmed natural satellites (ie. moons), and one artificial satellite – the NASA/ESA Cassini spacecraft, which has been exploring the Saturnian system since 2004. Saturn is presently about 1,455 million kilometres from Earth.

Feb 4

It is Last Quarter Moon today at 12:56am Australian Eastern Daylight Time (Feb 3, 13:56 Universal Time).

Feb 5

This evening, the Moon will appear close to the star Antares, the brightest star in the constellation Scorpius. Antares is a red supergiant star, about 880 times bigger and 10,000 times brighter than our Sun! It is about 550 light-years from Earth.

Feb 7

Today the Moon will be at the closest point in its orbit around Earth, called perigee. The distance between the two bodies will be 365,318 kilometres.

Feb 10

New Moon occurs today at 6:20pm Australian Eastern Daylight Time (07:20 Universal Time).

Feb 12

Just after sunset this evening, you might be able to see a very thin crescent Moon low on the horizon due west. To its left will be a brightish-looking ‘star’; it’s actually the planet Mercury. And just to Mercury’s left will be the ruddy-coloured planet Mars. Today Mercury is about 161 million kilometres from Earth, while Mars is about 348 million kilometres away.

Diagram showing the Moon and Jupiter

For stargazers in southern Australia, the Moon will pass in front of Jupiter on February 18, 2013.

Feb 18

There will be a major sky event this evening for those in the southern half of Australia! – the Moon will appear to move in front of the planet Jupiter. This is called an occultation (where ‘to occult’ means to ‘make go dark’). You’ll see the Moon slowly approaching Jupiter (which, to the naked eye, just looks like a bright star). Then, all of a sudden, as the Moon’s edge ‘reaches’ the planet, Jupiter will wink out. A short while later, after the Moon has moved on a bit (you’re actually watching it trundle along in its orbit), Jupiter will reappear on the other side.

Timings for the beginning of the event, in Standard (that is, non-Daylight Saving time – please adjust for your location if necessary) for capital cities are:

Adelaide: 10:00pm

Hobart: 10:22pm

Melbourne 10:33pm

Perth: 7:39pm

Unfortunately, the other capital cities will miss out.

Incidentally, it is First Quarter Moon this morning at 7:31am Australian Eastern Daylight Time (Feb 27, 20:31 Universal Time). First Quarter is a good time to look at the Moon through a telescope, as the sunlight angle means the craters and mountains are throwing nice shadows, making it easier to get that 3D effect.

Feb 19

In tonight’s evening sky, to the northwest you’ll see the Moon, and to it’s left will be a bright star. And it really is a star this time, not a planet. It’s Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation Taurus. Just to Aldebaran’s left, you might be able to see a wide grouping of stars (binoculars will help). This is called the Hyades star cluster.

And today the Moon is at the farthest point in its orbit around the Earth, called apogee, at a distance of 404,472 kilometres.

Feb 25

Just near the Moon in this evening’s sky, will be the star Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation Leo.

Feb 26

Full Moon occurs today at 7:26am Australian Eastern Daylight Time (Feb 25, 20:26 Universal Time).

There’s more great night sky viewing information at Melbourne Planetarium’s Skynotes site.

If you have any questions or comments on the night sky, we’d be happy to answer them. Please use the Feedback Form below. Happy stargazing!

Images courtesy IAU.

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Telescope takes universe’s temperature

Australia Telescope Compact Array

CSIRO’s Australia Telescope Compact Array, used the make the temperature measurements.

ASTRONOMERS USING a CSIRO radio telescope have taken the universe’s temperature, and have found that it has cooled down just the way the Big Bang theory predicts.

Using the Australia Telescope Compact Array near Narrabri, NSW, an international team from Sweden, France, Germany and Australia has measured how warm the universe was when it was half its current age.

“This is the most precise measurement ever made of how the universe has cooled down during its 13.77 billion year history,” said Dr Robert Braun, Chief Scientist at CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science.

Because light takes time to travel, when we look out into space we see the universe as it was in the past – as it was when light left the galaxies we are looking at. So to look back halfway into the universe’s history, we need to look halfway across the universe.

Cosmic fingerprint

How can we measure a temperature at such a great distance?

Illustration of radio waves coming from a distant quasar through a galaxy in the foreground and then on to Earth.

Radio waves from a distant quasar pass through another galaxy on their way to Earth. Changes in the radio waves indicate the temperature of the gas in that galaxy.

The astronomers studied gas in an unnamed galaxy 7.2 billion light-years away (at a redshift of 0.89).

The only thing keeping this gas warm is the cosmic background radiation – the glow left over from the Big Bang.

By chance, there is another powerful galaxy, a quasar (called PKS 1830-211), lying behind the unnamed galaxy.

Radio waves from this quasar come through the gas of the foreground galaxy. As they do so, the gas molecules absorb some of the energy of the radio waves. This leaves a distinctive ‘fingerprint’ on the radio waves.

From this ‘fingerprint’ the astronomers calculated the gas’s temperature. They found it to be 5.08 Kelvin (-267.92 degrees Celsius): extremely cold, but still warmer than today’s universe, which is at 2.73 Kelvin (-270.27 degrees Celsius).

Exactly as predicted

According to the Big Bang theory, the temperature of the cosmic background radiation drops smoothly as the universe expands.

“That’s just what we see in our measurements,” said research team leader Dr. Sebastien Muller of Onsala Space Observatory at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden. “The universe of a few billion years ago was a few degrees warmer than it is now, exactly as the Big Bang theory predicts.”

Adapted from information issued by CSIRO. Images David Smyth and Onsala Space Observatory.

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From darkness comes the light

Lupus 3 dark cloud

The Lupus 3 dark cloud, about 600 light-years from Earth, is a region where new stars are forming. Alongside is a cluster of brilliant stars that have already emerged from their dusty stellar nursery.

  • Lupus 3 stellar nursery is about 600 light-years from Earth
  • New stars are forming out of the dark dust clouds

A NEW IMAGE RELEASED by the European Southern Observatory shows a dark cloud where new stars are forming, along with a cluster of brilliant stars that have already emerged from their dusty stellar nursery.

The new picture was taken with the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile and is the best image ever taken at visible light wavelengths of this little-known object.

The cloud is known as Lupus 3, and it lies about 600 light-years from Earth. The section shown here is about five light-years across.

On the left of this new image there is a dark cloud that contains huge amounts of cool cosmic dust and is a nursery where new stars are being born. It is likely that the Sun formed in a similar star formation region more than four billion years ago.

As the denser parts of such clouds contract under the effects of gravity they heat up and start to shine – they’re new stars. At first their light is blocked by the dusty clouds and can be seen only by telescopes observing at longer wavelengths than visible light, such as infrared. But as the stars get hotter and brighter, their intense radiation and stellar winds gradually clear the clouds around them until they emerge in all their glory.

The bright stars on the right are a perfect example. Some of their brilliant blue light is being scattered off the remaining dust around them. The two brightest stars can be seen easily with a small telescope or binoculars. They are young stars that have not yet started to shine by nuclear fusion in their cores and are still surrounded by glowing gas. They’re probably less than one million years old.

Wider view of Lupus 3

A wider view of Lupus 3 shows the extent of the dark dust cloud, silhouetted against the starry background of our galaxy.

Adapted from information issued by ESO. Images courtesy ESO / F. Comeron / Digitised Sky Survey 2 / Davide De Martin.

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Remembering Apollo 5

PRIOR TO THE SUCCESSFUL manned lunar landings of the 1960s-’70s, NASA conducted a series of test flights, both crewed and uncrewed. One of those was the uncrewed Apollo 5 flight, which saw the first test (in Earth orbit) of the lunar module.

Apollo 5 (LM-1/Saturn 204) was launched from the Kennedy Space Centre’s Launch Complex 37 on January 22, 1968. The Lunar Module-1 payload was boosted into Earth orbit by a launch vehicle composed of a Saturn IB first stage and a Saturn S-IVB second stage. The Apollo lunar module’s first flight test was called a complete success. Ascent and descent propulsion systems and the ability to abort a lunar landing and return to orbit were demonstrated.

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

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No giant leap for mankind

Digital clock graphic showing a leap second

Notice anything strange? On a normal day, the clock would go from 23:59:59 to 00:00:00. But when we have a leap second, there is an extra second added, which would make the display read “60”, before going on to 00:00:00. It has been calculated that a leap second will not be needed in June 2013.

 

THE WORLD BODY that regulates our planet’s timekeeping system, has announced that there will not be a leap second added at the end of June this year.

Leap seconds are added from time to time (no pun intended) in order to keep two different time systems in sync – the time measured by the spin of the Earth, and that kept by atomic clocks.

The time measured by the Earth’s spin is the one that has been used for thousands of years. One rotation of the Earth – a day – is broken down into 24 hours, with each hour having 60 minutes and each minute having 60 seconds. That means there are 86,400 seconds in one day.

Or, to put it another way, the length of a second is 1/86,400th of one day. So what we call one second, is entirely dependent on being that fraction of the length of one rotation of the Earth.

The problem is, the Earth makes for a pretty rotten clock. Its rate of rotation is not constant – it speeds up and slows down over the course of a year, and from year to year is gradually slowing down. The overall rate of slowing is about 0.002 of a second per day, per century. That means if you measured the length of the day today, and then came back in 100 years, a day in the future would be 0.002 of a second shorter.

It doesn’t sound like much, and for centuries this was just fine. Hardly anyone needed to make measurements of time with a precision greater than one second. And those who did, limited themselves to perhaps tenths or hundredths of second, easily achievable with precision timepieces.

Here’s a fun little video that shows how scientists can tell the Earth is a poor clock:

But by the middle of the 20th century, the requirements for measuring time had become far more stringent. Our technology – computers and communications – plus sciences such as astronomy and physics, demanded better precision and regularity.

And so atomic clocks were invented. Atomic clocks keep extraordinarily precise and regular time. Since the late 1960s, our time system has been based on these atomic clocks, which are located in scientific institutions in many parts of the world.

The problem is, with atomic clocks keeping precise, regular time, but with the Earth gradually slowing down, the “natural” time of the day according to Earth’s rotation gets out of sync with atomic time. Earth falls behind. So every now and then, the powers-that-be decree that a one second delay needs to put into the atomic clock system to let the Earth catch up. And that’s what a leap second is.

It’s a bit like a parade of troops being ordered to march on the spot for a moment, to let the stragglers catch up.

Leap seconds can be added (or subtracted) at the end of June and December each year. But they’re not always necessary, and some years there aren’t any leap seconds at all. Since 1972, they’ve been added in June only 10 times; in December, 15 times. (On only one of those occasions, 1972, was a leap second added in both June and December).

Incidentally, most developed countries have their own institutes for maintaining standards in measurement, be it length, mass, electrical properties, time, and so on. In a nod to Dr Who, the person responsible for time at each institute is known as that country’s Time Lord. You can listen to (or read the transcript of) an interview I did a few years ago with Australia’s Time Lord, Dr Bruce Warrington, here: The Science Show

More information:

Wikipedia entry on leap seconds

Story by Jonathan Nally. Digital clock graphic courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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The Manatee Nebula

W50 supernova remnant

The W50 supernova remnant – now known as the Manatee Nebula – seen at radio wavelengths (green) against the background of stars and dust (seen at infrared wavelengths).

  • Supernova remnant cloud imaged by VLA radio telescope system
  • The cloud closely resembles the endangered Florida manatee
  • Manatees are gentle giants, until black holes, which are far from gentle

A NEW VIEW of a 20,000-year-old supernova remnant and shows how this giant cloud resembles a beloved endangered species, the Florida Manatee.

Known as W50, the supernova remnants is one of the largest ever viewed by the US National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA), which has recently been upgraded. Nearly 700 light-years across, seen from Earth W50 covers two degrees on the sky – that’s as wide as four full Moons.

The enormous W50 cloud formed when a giant star, 18,000 light-years away, exploded as a supernova around twenty thousand years ago, sending its outer gases flying outward in an expanding bubble.

The remaining, gravitationally-crushed relic of that giant star, most likely a black hole, feeds on gas from a very close, companion star. The cannibalised gas collects in a swirling cloud around the black hole.

The black hole’s powerful magnetic field snags charged particles out of the cloud and channels them outward in powerful jets travelling at nearly the speed of light.

The system shines brightly in both radio waves and X-rays and is known collectively as the SS 433 microquasar.

Over time, the microquasar’s jets have forced their way through the expanding gases of the W50 bubble, eventually punching bulges outward on either side. The jets also wobble, like an unstable spinning top, and blaze vivid corkscrew patterns across the inflating bulges.

Florida manatee

A Florida manatee rests underwater in Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River, Florida.

New namesake

When the W50 image reached the NRAO director’s office, Heidi Winter, the director’s executive assistant, saw the likeness to a manatee, the endangered marine mammals known as ‘sea cows’ that congregate in warm waters in the south-eastern United States.

Florida manatees are gentle giants that average around three metres long, weigh over 500kg, and spend up to eight hours a day grazing on sea plants. They occupy the remainder of their day resting, often on their backs with their flippers crossed over their large bellies, in a pose closely resembling W50.

Dangerous encounters with boat propellers injure many of these curious herbivores, giving them deep, curved scars similar in appearance to the arcs made by the powerful jets on the large W50 remnant.

Thanks to Ms Winter’s suggestion, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory has adopted a new nickname for W50: The Manatee Nebula.

Adapted from information issued by NRAO. W50 image courtesy NRAO / AUI / NSF, K. Golap, M. Goss; NASA’s Wide Field Survey Explorer (WISE). Manatee image courtesy Tracy Colson.

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