NASA News Digest: Space Science For 5 January – 21 January 2015

Greetings fellow astrophiles,

The NASA News service provides up-to-date announcements of NASA policy, news events, and space science. A recent selection of space science articles are provided below, including direct links to the full announcements. Those interested in receiving these news announcements directly from NASA can subscribe to their service by sending an email to:

hqnews-request@newsletters.nasa.gov?subject=subscribe

NASA’s Chandra Detects Record-Breaking Outburst from Milky Way’s Black Hole

RELEASE 15-001 (Click here for the full article) – 5 January 2015

2015jan22_15_001_chandra20140105_0Astronomers have observed the largest X-ray flare ever detected from the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy. This event, detected by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, raises questions about the behavior of this giant black hole and its surrounding environment.

The supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, called Sagittarius A*, or Sgr A*, is estimated to contain about 4.5 million times the mass of our sun.

Astronomers made the unexpected discovery while using Chandra to observe how Sgr A* would react to a nearby cloud of gas known as G2.

An interactive image, a podcast, and a video about the findings are available at: chandra.si.edu

For more Chandra images, multimedia and related materials, visit: www.nasa.gov/chandra

NASA, NOAA Find 2014 Warmest Year in Modern Record

RELEASE 15-010 (Click here for the full article) – 15 January 2015

The year 2014 ranks as Earth’s warmest since 1880, according to two separate analyses by NASA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists.

The 10 warmest years in the instrumental record, with the exception of 1998, have now occurred since 2000. This trend continues a long-term warming of the planet, according to an analysis of surface temperature measurements by scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies (GISS) in New York.

In an independent analysis of the raw data, also released Friday, NOAA scientists also found 2014 to be the warmest on record.

The data set of 2014 surface temperature measurements is available at:
data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/

The methodology used to make the temperature calculation is available at:
data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/sources_v3/

For more information about NASA’s Earth science activities, visit: www.nasa.gov/earthrightnow

NASA’s New Horizons Spacecraft Begins First Stages of Pluto Encounter

RELEASE 15-011 (Click here for the full article) – 15 January 2015

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft recently began its long-awaited, historic encounter with Pluto. The spacecraft is entering the first of several approach phases that culminate July 14 with the first close-up flyby of the dwarf planet, 4.67 billion miles (7.5 billion kilometers) from Earth.

“NASA first mission to distant Pluto will also be humankind’s first close up view of this cold, unexplored world in our solar system,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington. “The New Horizons team worked very hard to prepare for this first phase, and they did it flawlessly.”

For more information about the New Horizons mission, visit: www.nasa.gov/newhorizons and pluto.jhuapl.edu

NASA Spinoff 2015 Features Space Technology Making Life Better on Earth

RELEASE 15-009 (Click here for the full article) – 21 January 2015

NASA technologies are being used to locate underground water in some of the driest places on the Earth, build quieter and more fuel-efficient airplanes, and create shock absorbers that brace buildings in earthquakes.

The 2015 edition of NASA’s annual Spinoff publication highlights these and other technologies whose origins lie in space exploration, but now have broader applications.
NASA Spinoff 2015

“The game-changing technologies NASA develops to push the envelope of space exploration also improve our everyday lives,” said NASA Chief Technologist David Miller. “Spinoff 2015 is filled with stories that show there is more space in our lives than we think.”

Spinoff 2015 is available online at: spinoff.nasa.gov

For more information about NASA’s Technology Transfer Program, visit: technology.nasa.gov

NASA, Microsoft Collaboration Will Allow Scientists to ‘Work on Mars’

RELEASE 15-013 (Click here for the full article) – 21 January 2015

2015jan22_15_013_0NASA and Microsoft have teamed up to develop software called OnSight, a new technology that will enable scientists to work virtually on Mars using wearable technology called Microsoft HoloLens.

Developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, OnSight will give scientists a means to plan and, along with the Mars Curiosity rover, conduct science operations on the Red Planet.

“OnSight gives our rover scientists the ability to walk around and explore Mars right from their offices,” said Dave Lavery, program executive for the Mars Science Laboratory mission at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “It fundamentally changes our perception of Mars, and how we understand the Mars environment surrounding the rover.”

Learn more about NASA’s journey to Mars at: www.nasa.gov/mars

A Rare Triple-Transit Across Jupiter Tonight – 1:28 a.m. to 2:12 a.m. EST – Early Live Observing At New Moon Telescopes & Livestream’ed From The Griffith Observatory

Greetings fellow astrophiles!

If the sight of the green fuzzy blob that is Comet Lovejoy has excited you these past few weeks, then tonight will knock your foot-warmer’ed socks off. A rare triple-transit is happening early-early this morning across the surface of Jupiter, when the moons Io, Callisto, and Europa will all have their shadows cast on Jupiter’s surface at the same time for about 24 minutes. Until we get some really-really good telescopes for the professional amateur, Jupiter is the only planet in the solar system for which triple transits are visible from Earth’s surface (because its four Galilean satellites – Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto are big enough to case prominent shadows). Those who sleep through tonight’s will have to hang out until March 20th of 2032 (or buy a space shuttle from NASA surplus).

The triplet transit across Jupiter, courtesy of the Griffith Observatory youtube channel.

For those willing to brave the not-as-cold-as-recently temperatures of West Monroe tonight, Ryan Goodson has graciously offered his clear zenith at New Moon Telescope HQ starting around 9:30 p.m. – early enough to catch some of the night’s best objects and see the first shadow, that of Callisto, hit Jupiter’s surface before those with sleep schedules retire for the evening. Provided the CNY skies hold out, we might even stay long enough to catch the triple’s beginning.

For those wanting directions, please contact Ryan Goodson (ryan@newmoontelescopes.com) or myself (Contact Page or info@cnyo.org).

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Ryan Goodson and the skies above NMT HQ, including a bright Jupiter above and Comet Lovejoy just at the treeline at right. Click for a larger view.

For those convinced that the rest of us are crazy for attempting anything like this before the first Spring thaw, I am pleased to report that the Griffith Observatory will be streaming the event real-time from their livestream.com channel (which means you can always watch it in the morning over iced coffee). You can watch it below right on the CNYO website or head on over to the Griffith Observatory livestream channel at new.livestream.com/GriffithObservatoryTV.

The timings for the event are listed below as provided direct from space.com (which I encourage you to check out for more details), all times Eastern.

10:11 p.m. Callisto’s shadow enters disk

11:35 p.m. Io’s shadow enters disk

11:55 p.m. Io enters disk

1:19 a.m. Callisto enters disk

1:28 a.m. Europa’s shadow enters disk, triple shadow transit begins

1:52 a.m. Io’s shadow leaves disk, triple shadow transit ends

2:08 a.m. Europa enters disk, triple satellite transit begins

2:12 a.m. Io leaves disk, triple satellite transit ends

3:00 a.m. Callisto’s shadow leaves disk

4:22 a.m. Europa’s shadow leaves disk

5:02 a.m. Europa leaves disk

6:02 a.m. Callisto leaves disk

CNYO Observing Log: The Winter Of Lovejoy – Green Lakes, Jamesville Beach, And New Moon Telescopes HQ – January 9 to 14, 2015

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Comet Lovejoy imaged on January 10th by the ever-impressive CNY astrophotographer Stephen Shaner. From his CNYO Facebook Group post: Last night was the first in over three months it was clear enough to shoot, but it worked out well because Comet Lovejoy is at its peak. Here’s a quick process of about 40 minutes of exposures between 8-9 PM as it crossed the meridian. FOV is roughly three degrees. Distinct pale green coma in the eyepiece but unable to make out a tail or see it naked eye.

The 2015 skies are going to be full of comets. Well, at least six, to be exact, that will be either naked eye- or binocular-visible. That’s still quite a few to those keeping track! The amateur astronomy community has taken heroic efforts to scientifically identify and track new comets in the last, say, 400 years. The rise of, for instance, the Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System (or panSTARRS) as a method for finding and tracking both comets and near-earth asteroids (or, lumped together, “objects,” for which you might hear the abbreviation “NEOs”) has greatly increased the number of accounted-for fuzzy objects in our fields of view (and provided us a giant leap in our existential risk assessment infrastructure to boot). Quite simply, we’ve more + better eyes on the skies, meaning we’re bound to continue to find more and more comets and asteroids. You can even subscribe to NASA twitter feeds that announce the passing-by of these hopefully passers-by (see @AsteroidWatch and @NasaNEOCam).

The discovery of NEOs may or may not qualify as a modern John Henry-ism, as amateur astronomers are still discovering objects at a decent pace thanks to improvements in their own optics and imaging equipment. Comet Lovejoy, C/2014 Q2, is one such recent example discovered by famed modern comet hunter Terry Lovejoy (who has five comets to his name already).

Comet Lovejoy And More In CNY

Comet Lovejoy has made the winter sky that much more enjoyable (and below freezing cold that much more bearable) by reaching peak brightness in the vicinity of the prominent winter constellations Taurus and Orion. Visible soon after sunset and before the “really cold” temperatures set in (after 10 p.m. or so), Lovejoy has been an easy target in low-power binoculars and visible without equipment in sufficiently dark skies. Now on its way out of the inner solar system, its bright tail will shrink and its wide coma (that gives it its “fuzziness”) will disappear as the increasingly distant Sun is unable to melt Lovejoy’s surface ice. Those of us who dared the cold, clear CNY skies these past few weeks were treated to excellent views, while the internet has been flooded with remarkable images of what some have described as the most photographed comet in history (a title that will likely be taken from it when a few other comets pass us by during warmer nights this year).

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The tiki lounge at Green Lakes State Park, 9 January 2014.

The first observing session around Syracuse this year happened at Green Lakes State Park on January 9th. Bob Piekiel, one of CNY’s best known and most knowledgable amateur astronomers, had his Celestron NexStar 11 in the parking lot behind the main office, which was fortunately kept open for attendees hoping to warm up between views. To Bob’s C11 was added my Zhumell 25×100’s, providing less magnification but a wider field of view to take in more of the comet’s core, tail, and nearby stars.

2015jan22_lovejoyfromgreenlakes_small

A very prominent Orion and arrow-ed Comet Lovejoy from the Green Lakes parking lot. Photo by Kim Titus.

The Friday night skies were only partially on our side, offering a few short-lived views of the Orion Nebula and Lovejoy. Jupiter was just bright enough to burn through some of the cloud cover to our East, giving us slightly muddled but otherwise decent views of it and its four largest satellites for about 10 minutes. By our 9 p.m. pack-up and departure, the skies were even worse – which is always a good feeling for observers (knowing they didn’t miss a chance for any additional views by packing up early).

The night of Saturday, January 10th turned into a much better night for observing, offering a good opportunity for some long-exposure images to try to capture Lovejoy just past its luminous prime. The following image was taken from one of the parking lots at Jamesville Beach – the same spot where Larry Slosberg, Dan Williams and I observed the nova in Delphinus. Light pollution aside from the 30 second exposure, the brightest constellations are clearly visible and a fuzzy, bright green star is clearly visible in the full-sized image. Click on the image below for a larger, unlabeled version of the same.

2015jan22_jamesvillebeach_small

An array of Winter’s finest from Jamesville Beach, 10 January 2014, 8:00 p.m. Click on the image for a full and unlabeled version.

The imaging continued in Marcellus on January 10th, with Bob Piekiel producing a zoomed in view of Lovejoy.

2015jan22_lovejoyfrommarcellus_small

An unmistakable view of Comet Lovejoy. Image by Bob Piekiel.

As with all astronomical phenomena (excluding solar viewing, of course), the best views come from the darkest places. A third Lovejoy session was had up in West Monroe, NY on Wednesday, January 14th with fellow CNYO’er Ryan Goodson at New Moon Telescopes. Putting his 27” Dob to use, the green-tinted Lovejoy was almost bright enough to tan your retina. With dark skies and no observing line, we then attacked some subtler phenomena, including the Orion Nebula in Orion, the Eskimo Nebula in Gemini, and the Hubble Variable Nebula in Monoceros. The images below are our selfie with Lovejoy and the best of Winter, a snapshot near the zenith (with Jupiter prominent), and the Northern sky (click on the images for larger, unlabeled versions).

2015jan22_nmt1_small

Ryan and I pose for 30 sec, our fingers completely missing the location of Lovejoy (red arrow). Click for a larger view.

2015jan22_nmt2_small

Some of Winter’s finest from NMT HQ, including a prominent Jupiter just to the west of (and about to be devoured by) the constellation Leo. Click for a larger view.

2015jan22_nmt3_small

A view of NMT’s opening to the North, including Cassiopeia at left (the sideways “W”), the Big Dipper in the middle, and Jupiter at the right. Click for a larger view.

A Clothing Thought…

As we can all attest to, the nighttime temperatures this month have oscillated between bitterly cold and painfully cold. The pic of my Element’s thermometer at my midnight departure from West Monroe read -12 F (and the tire inflation warning light stayed on until I hit 81 South), yet with the exception of the tips of my toes, I wasn’t very bothered by the cold.

2015jan22_nmt_tempair

2015jan22_nmt_layersIt’s one of the cold realities of amateur astronomy – you never realize how cold it can get outside until you’re standing perfectly still at a metal eyepiece. The solution is as old as the sediment-grown hills – layers! The top half of my outfit for the evening is shown below, featuring six (yes, six) layers from turtleneck to final coat. My bottom half featured three layers that decorum permits me from showing here. For those wondering how the blood still flows below the belt, the answer is simple – buy yourself an outer layer two or three sizes larger than you usually wear. In my case, my outer coat’s a bit baggy and my outer pants are a very tightly-meshed pair of construction pants with a 40” waist (from a trip to DeJulio’s Army & Navy Store on Burnet Ave. in Syracuse).

And don’t worry about color coordinating. The nighttime is the right time for the fashion unconscious.