June Boötids

Some meteor showers give a more-or-less reliable performance the same time each year, but others have an occasional year with (sometimes substantial) activity punctuating many years with little or no activity.  The June Boötids, which may or may not be visible any night this week but most likely Wednesday morning or Wednesday evening if at all, is one such shower.  This year, however, any meteors that do occur will be compromised by the nearly-full moon.

One hallmark of the June Boötids is that they are unusually slow meteors, so they’re easy to identify if you see one.  Look for the meteors to emanate from a region of the sky a few degrees north of the top of the “kite” of Boötes.

Of the 38 meteor showers listed in the IMO‘s “Working List of Visual Meteor Showers”, the lowest V, which is the pre-atmospheric Earth-apparent meteor velocity, is 18 km/s.  The three showers with that velocity are the π Puppids (Apr 23, δ=-45°), June Boötids (Jun 27, δ=+48°), and Phoenicids (Dec 2, δ=-53°).  For those of us living in the northern U.S., the June Boötids is the only one of these three showers we are ever likely to see.

Outbursts of June Boötids activity approaching or even exceeding 100 meteors per hour (single observer hourly rate) occurred in 1916, 1921, 1927, 1998, and 2004.  When the next outburst will occur none can yet say.

In eight years between 2001 and 2014 inclusive, my friend and expert visual meteor observer Paul Martsching of Ames, Iowa observed fourteen 0-magnitude or brighter June Boötids, the brightest of which was -4 in 2004.  He has seen June Boötids activity as early as June 22nd and as late as July 1st.  Of the 44 June Boötids he has observed, 52% were white in color, 27% yellow, and 21% orange.

Though we’re always at the mercy of the weather and the Moon and a workaday world that does little to accommodate the observational astronomy amateur scientist, meteor watching is a rewarding activity.   Even when meteor activity is sparse, you have time to think, to study the sky, to experience the beauty of the night.

29769 (1999 CE28)

Early in the morning of Tuesday, May 29, 2018, I was fortunate enough to record a 3.2 second occultation of the 12.6 magnitude star UCAC4 359-140328 in Sagittarius by the unnamed asteroid 29769, originally given the provisional designation 1999 CE28.

Not only is this the first time this asteroid has been observed to pass in front of a star, it is the smallest asteroid I have ever observed passing in front of a star.  At an estimated diameter of 14.7 miles, had I been located just 7.4 miles either side of the centerline of the shadow path, I would have missed this event altogether!  This is also the first positive event I’ve recorded for an (as yet) unnamed asteroid, and the first positive event I’ve recorded for an asteroid having more than a four-digit number (29769).

As you can see in the map above, the predicted shadow path was quite a ways northwest of my location.  Even though I used the Gaia DR2 position for UCAC4 359-140328 for the path prediction, the existing orbital elements for asteroid 29769 did not yield a correspondingly accurate position for the asteroid.

Though a single chord across an asteroid does not give us any definitive information about its overall size and shape, it does give us a very accurate astrometric position that will be used to improve the orbital elements for this asteroid.

The central moment of this occultation event was 6:00:02.414 UT on May 29, 2018, which was about 20 seconds later than predicted.  The astrometric equatorial coordinates for the star UCAC4 359-140328 referenced to the J2000 equinox (using Gaia DR2 with proper motion applied) are

UCAC4 359-140328
α = 18h 21m 01.6467
δ = -18° 20′ 46.282″

 

Using JPL Horizons (with the extra precision option selected), the astrometric equatorial coordinates for the asteroid 29769 (1999 CE28), again referenced to the J2000 equinox, are

29769 (1999 CE28)
α = 18h 21m 01.6388
δ = -18° 20′ 46.320″

 

As we can see above, the actual position of the asteroid at the time of the event was 0.0079 seconds of time east and 0.038 seconds of arc north of its predicted position.  This observation will provide a high quality astrometric data point for the asteroid that will be used to improve its orbit.  Gratifying!

As of this writing, there are 523,584 minor planets that have sufficiently well enough determined orbits to have received a number.  Of these, only 21,348 have received names (4.1%).  So, I guess you could say there is quite a backlog of numbered asteroids awaiting to receive names.  The IAU should consider naming some minor planets after the most productive asteroid occultation observers around the world.  There aren’t very many of us, and this would certainly be an encouragement to new and existing observers.

Project Gutenberg

Over 56,000 historical books and other documents, most published prior to 1923, are available online for downloading or browsing at Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org), with more being added all the time. A quick search of the term “astronomy” yields the following:

The Discovery of a World in the Moone: Or, A Discovrse Tending To Prove That ‘Tis Probable There May Be Another Habitable World In That Planet (1638)
John Wilkins (1614-1672)

The Study of Astronomy, Adapted to the capacities of youth (1796)
John Gabriel Stedman (1744-1797)

The Martyrs of Science, or, The lives of Galileo, Tycho Brahe, and Kepler (1841)
David Brewster (1781-1868)

Lectures on Astronomy (1854)
The Wit and Humor of America, Volume V. (1911)
George Horatio Derby (1823-1861), writing under the name of John Phoenix
Marshall Pinckney Wilder (1859-1915), editor

Letters on Astronomy: In which the Elements of the Science are Familiarly Explained in Connection with Biographical Sketches of the Most Eminent Astronomers (1855)
Denison Olmsted (1791-1859)

The Uses of Astronomy: An Oration Delivered at Albany on the 28th of July, 1856 (1856)
Edward Everett (1794-1865)

Cosmos: A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe, Vol. 1 (1858)
Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859)

Curiosities of Science, Past and Present: A Book for Old and Young (1858)
John Timbs (1801-1875)

Astronomy for Young Australians (1866)
James Bonwick (1817-1906)

Meteoric astronomy: A treatise on shooting-stars, fire-balls, and aerolites (1867)
Daniel Kirkwood (1814-1895)

Popular Books on Natural Science: For Practical Use in Every Household, for Readers of All Classes (1869)
Aaron David Bernstein (1812-1884)

Half-hours with the Telescope: Being a Popular Guide to the Use of the Telescope as a Means of Amusement and Instruction (1873)
Richard Anthony Proctor (1837-1888)

Astronomical Myths: Based on Flammarions’s “History of the Heavens” (1877)
John Frederick Blake (1839-1906)
Camille Flammarion (1842-1925)

New and Original Theories of the Great Physical Forces (1878)
Henry Raymond Rogers (1822-1901)

Recreations in Astronomy: With Directions for Practical Experiments and Telescopic Work (1879)
Henry White Warren (1831-1912)

The Sidereal Messenger of Galileo Galilei and a Part of the Preface to Kepler’s Dioptrics Containing the Original Account of Galileo’s Astronomical Discoveries (1880)
Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)
Johannes Kepler (1571-1630)
Edward Stafford Carlos ((1842–1927), translator

Sir William Herschel: His Life and Works (1880)
Edward Singleton Holden (1846-1914)

Popular Scientific Recreations in Natural Philosophy, Astronomy, Geology, Chemistry, etc., etc., etc. (1881)
Gaston Tissandier (1843-1899)

Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, Volume 1 (1889)
Astronomical Society of the Pacific (1889-)

A Textbook of General Astronomy for Colleges and Scientific Schools (1889)
Charles Augustus Young (1834-1908)

Time and Tide: A Romance of the Moon (1889)
Robert Stawell Ball (1840-1913)

Astronomy with an Opera-glass: A Popular Introduction to the Study of the Starry Heavens with the Simplest of Optical Instruments (1890)
Garrett Putman Serviss (1851-1929)

Pioneers of Science (1893)
Sir Oliver Joseph Lodge (1851-1940)

Great Astronomers (1895)
Robert Stawell Ball (1840-1913)

The Astronomy of Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ (1896)
Thomas Nathaniel Orchard, M.D.

Myths and Marvels of Astronomy (1896)
Richard Anthony Proctor (1837-1888)

The Story of Eclipses (1899)
George Frederick Chambers (1841-1915)

The Tides and Kindred Phenomena in the Solar System: The Substance of Lectures Delivered in 1897 at the Lowell Institute, Boston, Massachusetts (1899)
Sir George Howard Darwin (1845-1912)

The Royal Observatory, Greenwich: A Glance at Its History and Work (1900)
Edward Walter Maunder (1851-1928)

The Story of the Heavens (1900)
Robert Stawell Ball (1840-1913)

Other Worlds: Their Nature, Possibilities and Habitability in the Light of the Latest Discoveries (1901)
Garrett Putman Serviss (1851-1929)

Pleasures of the telescope: An Illustrated Guide for Amateur Astronomers and a Popular Description of the Chief Wonders of the Heavens for General Readers (1901)
Garrett Putman Serviss (1851-1929)

A Text-Book of Astronomy (1903)
George Cary Comstock (1855-1934)

Astronomical Discovery (1904)
Herbert Hall Turner (1861-1930)

A New Astronomy (1906)
David Peck Todd (1855-1939)

New Theories in Astronomy (1906)
William Stirling (1822-1900)

Side-Lights on Astronomy and Kindred Fields of Popular Science (1906)
Simon Newcomb (1835-1909)

The Children’s Book of Stars (1907)
Geraldine Edith Mitton (1868-1955)

Mathematical Geography (1907)
Willis Ernest Johnson (1869-1951)

Astronomical Instruments and Accessories (1908)
William Gaertner and Company (1896-)
now Gaertner Scientific Corporation

The Astronomy of the Bible: An Elementary Commentary on the Astronomical References of Holy Scripture (1908)
Edward Walter Maunder (1851-1928)

A Popular History of Astronomy During the Nineteenth Century, Fourth Edition (1908)
Agnes Mary Clerke (1842-1907)

Astronomical Curiosities: Facts and Fallacies (1909)
John Ellard Gore (1845-1910)

The Future of Astronomy (1909)
Edward Charles Pickering (1846-1919)

History of Astronomy (1909)
George Forbes (1849-1936)

Astronomy for Amateurs (1910)
Camille Flammarion (1842-1925)

Astronomy of To-day: A Popular Introduction in Non-Technical Language (1910)
Cecil Goodrich Julius Dolmage (1870-1908)

The World’s Greatest Books — Volume 15 — Science (1910)
Arthur Mee (1875-1943), editor
Sir John Alexander Hammerton (1871-1949), editor

The Science of the Stars (1912)
Edward Walter Maunder (1851-1928)

Are the Planets Inhabited? (1913)
Edward Walter Maunder (1851-1928)

Woman in Science: With an Introductory Chapter on Woman’s Long Struggle for Things of the Mind (1913)
John Augustine Zahm (1851-1921), writing under the name H. J. Mozans

A Field Book of the Stars (1914)
William Tyler Olcott (1873-1936)

An Introduction to Astronomy (1916)
Forest Ray Moulton (1872-1952)

Scientific Papers by Sir George Howard Darwin. Volume V. Supplementary Volume (1916)
Sir George Howard Darwin (1845-1912)
Ernest William Brown (1866-1938), contributor
Sir Francis Darwin (1848-1925), contributor

The gradual acceptance of the Copernican theory of the universe (1917)
Dorothy Stimson (1890-1988)

Astronomical Lore in Chaucer (1919)
Florence Marie Grimm

Lectures on Stellar Statistics (1921)
Carl Vilhelm Ludwig Charlier (1862-1934)

The Star People (1921)
Gaylord Johnson

Terrestrial and Celestial Globes Volume 1: Their History and Construction Including a Consideration of their Value as Aids in the Study of Geography and Astronomy (1921)
Edward Luther Stevenson (1858-1944)

Terrestrial and Celestial Globes Volume 2: Their History and Construction Including a Consideration of their Value as Aids in the Study of Geography and Astronomy (1921)
Edward Luther Stevenson (1858-1944)

Astronomy for Young Folks (1922)
Isabel Martin Lewis (1881-1966)

Astronomy: The Science of the Heavenly Bodies (1922)
David Peck Todd (1855-1939)

The New Heavens (1922)
George Ellery Hale (1868-1938)

Watchers of the Sky (1922)
Alfred Noyes (1880-1958)

Biography of Percival Lowell (1935)
Abbott Lawrence Lowell (1856-1943)

Like Sun, Like Moon

The Earth orbits the Sun once every 365.256363 (mean solar) days relative to the distant stars.  The Earth’s orbital speed ranges from 18.2 miles per second at aphelion, around July 4th, to 18.8 miles per second at perihelion, around January 3rd.  In units we’re perhaps more familiar with, that’s 65,518 mph at aphelion and 67,741 mph at perihelion. That’s a difference of 2,223 miles per hour!

As we are on a spinning globe, the direction towards which the Earth is orbiting is different at different times of the day.  When the Sun crosses the celestial meridian, due south, at its highest point in the sky around noon (1:00 p.m. daylight time), the Earth is orbiting towards your right (west) as you are facing south. Since the Earth is orbiting towards the west, the Sun appears to move towards the east, relative to the background stars—if we could see them during the day.  Since there are 360° in a circle and the Earth orbits the Sun in 365.256363 days (therefore the Sun appears to go around the Earth once every 365.256363 days relative to the background stars), the Sun’s average angular velocity eastward relative to the background stars is 360°/365.256363 days = 0.9856° per day.

The constellations through which the Sun moves are called the zodiacal constellations, and historically the zodiac contained 12 constellations, the same number as the number of months in a year.  But Belgian astronomer Eugène Delporte (1882-1955) drew up the 88 constellation boundaries we use today, approved by the IAU in 1930, so now the Sun spends a few days each year in the non-zodiacal constellation Ophiuchus, the Serpent Bearer. Furthermore, because the Earth’s axis is precessing, the calendar dates during which the Sun is in a particular zodiacal constellation is gradually getting later.

Astrologically, each zodiacal constellation has a width of 30° (360° / 12 constellations = 30° per constellation).  But, of course, the constellations are different sizes and shapes, so astronomically the number of days the Sun spends in each constellation varies. Here is the situation at present.

Constellation
Description
Sun Travel Dates
Capricornus
Sea Goat
Jan 19 through Feb 16
Aquarius
Water Bearer
Feb 16 through Mar 12
Pisces
The Fish
Mar 12 through Apr 18
Aries
The Ram
Apr 18 through May 14
Taurus
The Bull
May 14 through Jun 21
Gemini
The Twins
Jun 21 through Jul 20
Cancer
The Crab
Jul 20 through Aug 10
Leo
The Lion
Aug 10 through Sep 16
Virgo
The Virgin
Sep 16 through Oct 31
Libra
The Scales
Oct 31 through Nov 23
Scorpius
The Scorpion
Nov 23 through Nov 29
Ophiuchus
Serpent Bearer
Nov 29 through Dec 18
Sagittarius
The Archer
Dec 18 through Jan 19

 

The apparent path the Sun takes across the sky relative to the background stars through these 13 constellations is called the ecliptic.  A little contemplation, aided perhaps by a drawing, will convince you that the ecliptic is also the plane of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun.  The Moon never strays very far from the ecliptic in our sky, since its orbital plane around the Earth is inclined at a modest angle of 5.16° relative to the Earth’s orbital plane around the Sun.  But, relative to the Earth’s equatorial plane, the inclination of the Moon’s orbit varies between 18.28° and 28.60° over 18.6 years as the line of intersection between the Moon’s orbital plane and the ecliptic plane precesses westward along the ecliptic due to the gravitational tug of war the Earth and the Sun exert on the Moon as it moves through space.  This steep inclination to the equatorial plane is very unusual for such a large moon.  In fact, all four satellites in our solar system that are larger than our Moon (Ganymede, Titan, Callisto, and Io) and the one that is slightly smaller (Europa) all orbit in a plane that is inclined less than 1/2° from the equatorial plane of their host planet (Jupiter and Saturn).

Since the Moon is never farther than 5.16° from the ecliptic, its apparent motion through our sky as it orbits the Earth mimics that of the Sun, only the Moon’s angular speed is over 13 times faster, completing its circuit of the sky every 27.321662 days, relative to the distant stars.  Thus the Moon moves a little over 13° eastward every day, or about 1/2° per hour.  Since the angular diameter of the Moon is also about 1/2°, we can easily remember that the Moon moves its own diameter eastward relative to the stars every hour.  Of course, superimposed on this motion is the 27-times-faster-yet motion of the Moon and stars westward as the Earth rotates towards the east.

Now, take a look at the following table and see how the Moon’s motion mimics that of the Sun throughout the month, and throughout the year.

 
——— Moon’s Phase and Path ———
Date
Sun’s Path
New
FQ
Full
LQ
Mar 20
EQ
EQ
High
EQ
Low
Jun 21
High
High
EQ
Low
EQ
Sep 22
EQ
EQ
Low
EQ
High
Dec 21
Low
Low
EQ
High
EQ

 

New = New Moon
near the Sun
FQ = First Quarter
90° east of the Sun
Full = Full Moon
180°, opposite the Sun
LQ = Last Quarter
90° west of the Sun

 

EQ
= crosses the celestial equator heading north
High
= rides high (north) across the sky
EQ
= crosses the celestial equator heading south
Low
= rides low (south) across the sky

 

So, if you aren’t already doing so, take note of how the Moon moves across the sky at different phases and times of the year.  For example, notice how the full moon (nearest the summer solstice) on June 27/28 rides low in the south across the sky.  You’ll note the entry for the “Jun 21” row and “Full” column is “Low”.  And, the Sun entry for that date is “High”.  See, it works!

Observation, Theory, and Reality

We continue our series of excerpts (and discussion) from the outstanding survey paper by George F. R. Ellis, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology.

8.3 Limits of Representation and Knowledge of Reality
It follows…that there are limits to what the scientific method can achieve in explanatory terms.  We need to respect these limits and acknowledge clearly when arguments and conclusions are based on some philosophical stance rather than purely on testable scientific argument.  If we acknowledge this and make that stance explicit, then the bases for different viewpoints are clear and alternatives can be argued about rationally.

We human beings want so badly to be able to explain our existence and existence itself that we tend to “fill in the blanks” and treat speculation (no matter how well reasoned) as if it were something akin to fact.  This is true for both science and religion.  A more reasonable approach, it seems to me, is to reject absolute certainty—especially where physical evidence is sparse or nonexistent—while always striving to deepen our understanding.  That is the scientist’s stock-in-trade—or should be.  Each of us needs to become more aware of the limitations of our understanding!

Thesis F6: Reality is not fully reflected in either observations or theoretical models.
Problems arise from confusion of epistemology (the theory of knowledge) with ontology (the nature of existence): existence is not always manifest clearly in the available evidence.  The theories and models of reality we use as our basis for understanding are necessarily partial and incomplete reflections of the true nature of reality, helpful in many ways but also inevitably misleading in others.  They should not be confused with reality itself!

We humans create our own “realities”, but under the very best of circumstances (science, for example), our “reality” is only an imperfect model of what actually exists.

The confusion of epistemology with ontology occurs all the time, underlying for example the errors of both logical positivism and extreme relativism.  In particular, it is erroneous to assume that lack of evidence for the existence of some entity is proof of its non-existence.  In cosmology it is clear for example that regions may exist from which we can obtain no evidence (because of the existence of horizons); so we can sometimes reasonably deduce the existence of unseen matter or regions from a sound extrapolation of available evidence (no one believes matter ends at or just beyond the visual horizon).  However one must be cautious about the other extreme, assuming existence can always be assumed because some theory says so, regardless of whether there is any evidence of existence or not.  This happens in present day cosmology, for example in presentations of the case for multiverses, even though the underlying physics has not been experimentally confirmed.  It may be suggested that arguments ignoring the need for experimental/observational verification of theories ultimately arise because these theories are being confused with reality, or at least are being taken as completely reliable total representations of reality.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.  But, without evidence, all we have is conjecture, no matter how well informed.  As Carl Sagan once said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

No model (literary, intuitive, or scientific) can give a perfect reflection of reality.  Such models are always selective in what they represent and partial in the completeness with which they do so.  The only model that would reflect reality fully is a perfect fully detailed replica of reality itself! This understanding of the limits of models and theories does not diminish the utility of these models; rather it helps us use them in the proper way.  This is particularly relevant when we consider how laws of nature may relate to the origins of the universe itself, and to the existence and nature of life in the expanding universe.  The tendency to rely completely on our theories, even when untested, seems sometimes to arise because we believe they are the same as reality—when at most they are descriptions of reality.

Ellis makes a pretty good case here against dogma.  Though he does not specifically mention religion (and why should he, as the subject at hand is cosmology), I do think these ideas apply to religion as well.

Always a journey, never a destination.

References
Ellis, G. F. R. 2006, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology, Philosophy of Physics (Handbook of the Philosophy of Science), Ed. J. Butterfield and J. Earman (Elsevier, 2006), 1183-1285.
[http://arxiv.org/abs/astro-ph/0602280]

Meteor Shower “Clumpiness”

Have you ever noticed while watching a major meteor shower like the Geminids, Perseids, or the Leonids (esp. 1997-2002) that meteors come in clumps?  Often, you’ll see a bunch of meteors over a period of one to five minutes, followed by several (sometimes many) minutes with nothing.  In other words, if a rate of 60 meteors per hour is predicted, that does not mean you will see a meteor each minute!  Not even close.  This indicates that the particles in a meteor stream are somewhat bunched together rather than evenly distributed in space.

I can’t tell you how often someone has told me that they went out to watch meteor shower x, y, or z and didn’t see a thing.  Invariably, when I ask “how long did you watch?” they say something like 5, 10, or 15 minutes.  That’s not long enough!  If you’re serious about seeing some impressive meteor activity you really need to be out for two hours minimum, at a time when the meteor shower radiant is above the horizon.  Look generally toward the radiant direction—unless the Moon is in your field of view, in which case you will want to look in a direction opposite the Moon.  You also need to be reasonably well dark-adapted, and that means—ideally—no terrestrial lights should be in your field of view that are brighter than the brightest stars.

Lovely Coma Berenices

One of the special joys of getting out under a dark rural sky this time of year is seeing the gossamer beauty of the surprisingly expansive star cluster called Melotte 111, also known as the Coma star clusterMel 111 makes up a large part of the constellation Coma Berenices, “Berenice’s Hair”.  This constellation, which entertains the North Galactic Pole as well as a gaggle of galaxies, can be found about midway between Denebola (some call the Coma star cluster the end of the “tail” of Leo the Lion) and Arcturus, as well as midway between Spica and the Big Dipper.  Coma Berenices is transiting the meridian this week as evening twilight ends.  At a distance of just 284 light years, the Coma star cluster is the third nearest star cluster to us, surpassed only by the open cluster remnant Collinder 285—the Ursa Major association (80 ly)—and the Hyades (153 ly).

Interstellar Object 1I/2017U1 ‘Oumuamua

After years of searching and hypothesizing, we have finally discovered a macroscopic object passing through our solar system that came from interstellar space!  An elongated rocky object with approximate dimensions 755 × 115 × 115 ft. entered the solar system from the direction of the constellation Lyra at a velocity (v) of 26 km/s (16 mi/s or 58,000 mph), and will exit the solar system at essentially the same speed in the direction of the constellation Pegasus, within the Great Square.

This interstellar object (ISO) is called 1I/2017U1 ‘Oumuamua.  What’s in a name?  A lot!  Let’s separate the three different parts of this designation, discussing each in turn.

1I – “I” stands for “interstellar” and “1” indicates that it is the first interstellar solar system visitor discovered.

2017U1 – indicates that it was the first object discovered during the half-month October 16-31 in the year 2017.

‘Oumuamua [pronunciation] is a Hawaiian word for “scout”, reflecting how this object is like a scout or messenger reaching out to us from the distant past.

‘Oumuamua Enters the Solar System

Here’s a brief timeline of the encounter.

September 9, 2017 – Closest approach to the Sun (0.26 AU)

October 14, 2017 – Closest approach to the Earth (0.16 AU)

October 19, 2017 – Discovered by Robert Weryk with Pan-STARRS

It is very difficult for us to discover objects coming towards us from the inner solar system and the glare of the Sun, so it is not surprising that ‘Oumuamua was discovered after it had passed by the Earth on its way out of the solar system.

‘Oumuamua in the Inner Solar System
NASA Animation Showing ‘Oumuamua’s Journey Through the Inner Solar System
‘Oumuamua Exits the Solar System

Rob Weryk, a post-doc at the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy, discovered ‘Oumuamua in images taken by the Pan-STARRS1 1.8-meter Ritchey–Chrétien telescope at the summit of the dormant volcano Haleakalā on the island of Maui.  Pan-STARRS is an acronym for “Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System” and is primarily used to search for Near Earth Objects (NEOs).  It has been estimated that Pan-STARRS should be able to detect an interstellar object like ‘Oumuamua passing through our solar system about once every 5 years.

But the 8.4-meter Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) in Chile, which will see first light in 2019, is expected to be able to detect at least one interstellar object passing through our solar system each year.

While we don’t know ‘Oumuamua’s place of origin, we do know that it originated outside our solar system, and that is exciting.  Was it ejected from a binary system?  Or through a chance encounter with a giant planet in its outer solar system?  Is it an “extinct” interstellar comet?  Perhaps it is a former asteroid of a dying star.  Even our own Sun, which is expected to reach a peak luminosity of 5200 L as a red giant star in a few billion years, will lose mass and transition to a white dwarf, causing a dynamical reshuffling that will eject a large number of asteroids, trans-Neptunian objects, and comets from our solar system (Seligman & Laughlin 2018).  Perhaps ‘Oumuamua long ago suffered a similar fate.

A detailed astrometric study (ground-based and HST) of ‘Oumuamua’s trajectory through the inner solar system has revealed a small non-gravitational acceleration component directed radially away from the Sun (Micheli et al. 2018).  After ruling out other known gravitational and non-gravitational accelerators, the authors conclude that the most probable explanation is cometlike outgassing, though ‘Oumuamua displayed no detectable coma during its all-too-brief apparition.  Astronomers expect that only a small fraction of interstellar objects should be asteroidal, and this study bolsters—but does not prove—the notion that ‘Oumuamua is an interstellar comet.

References
McNeill, A., Trilling, D. E., Mommert, M. 2018, ApJL, 857, L1 (arXiv:1803.09864)
Micheli, M., Farnocchia, D., Meech, K.J., et al. 2018, Nature,
https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-018-0254-4
Seligman, D. & Laughlin, G. 2018, AJ, in press (arXiv:1803.07022)

M81 and M82 from HST

The galaxy pair M81 and M82 in Ursa Major must rank near the top of the list of best-loved objects for any Northern Hemisphere amateur astronomer.  So, to see such a familiar object as these in breathtaking Hubble Space Telescope detail is thrilling indeed:

Messier 81 from the Hubble Space Telescope – click on the image for a larger view
Messier 82 from the Hubble Space Telescope – click on the image for a larger view

M81 and M82 lie little more than a moon-width apart in the constellation Ursa Major, 11.8 million and 11.5 million light years, respectively, from Earth.  Check out this pretty pair with either binoculars or a telescope any clear evening during the next few days.  Both galaxies transit the meridian on April 14 at the end of evening twilight, so this is the perfect time to observe them at their highest in the sky.  You can find Bode’s Galaxy (M81) and the “Silver Sliver” (M82) by drawing an imaginary diagonal across the bowl of the Big Dipper, opposite (rather than along) the handle, and extending the diagonal beyond the bowl almost as far as the two bowl stars are apart. Or, using the chart I created below, draw an imaginary line between Dubhe and 24 UMa, then go about four-fifths of the way to 24 UMa.  M81 & M82 lie about 0.4° (a little less than a moon-width) perpendicular to that line on the Polaris side.  Bingo, you’ve got ’em!

Skyline to M81 (and M82)

 

Iapetus – Wow!

Saturn’s third largest moon, Iapetus (eye-AP-eh-tuss), was discovered at the then-new Paris Observatory in 1671 by Italian-French astronomer (and observatory director) Giovanni Domenico (Jean-Dominique) Cassini (1625-1712).  Upon further observation, Cassini noted that he could only see Iapetus when it was on the west side of Saturn, never the east.  His telescope was not large enough to detect Iapetus on the east side of Saturn because it was much fainter then.  He correctly reasoned that, “it seems, that one part of his surface is not so capable of reflecting to us the light of the Sun which maketh it visible, as the other part is.”  He also must have realized that Iapetus was locked in synchronous rotation—as is our Moon—with the same side facing Saturn all the time, with its rotation period being equal to its orbital period.  Today we know these periods to be 79.3215 days.

The leading hemisphere of Iapetus has a visual albedo of only about 5%, whereas most of the trailing hemisphere is much brighter, having an albedo around 25%.  Thus, when Iapetus is on the west side of Saturn, its apparent visual magnitude is around 10.2, but on the east side of Saturn Iapetus is 1.7 magnitudes fainter at 11.9.  Without a doubt, Iapetus is one of the most outlandish places in the solar system, and the Cassini Saturn orbiter flybys certainly amplified the strangeness.

Cassini made one close targeted flyby of Iapetus on September 10, 2007, passing within 762 miles of the surface.  Here are a few of the best photos of Iapetus from Cassini.

The first high-resolution glimpse of the bright trailing hemisphere of Saturn’s moon Iapetus
This is a raw, or unprocessed, image taken by the Cassini spacecraft during its close flyby of Saturn’s moon Iapetus on Sept. 10, 2007 showing its prominent equatorial ridge—still a mystery
The “Himalayas” of Iapetus
The Transition Zone
Closest View of Iapetus
Dark material splatters the walls and floors of craters in the surreal, frozen wastelands of Iapetus
May 30, 2017 – Cassini bids farewell to Saturn’s yin-and-yang moon, Iapetus

The dark material appears to have been deposited from elsewhere in the Saturnian system, but sublimation of water ice may also play a role.  In any event, the dark material is a relatively thin veneer, significantly less than a meter thick in many places.

The warm day on Iapetus sees a surface temperature of -227° F on the dark terrain and an even colder -256° F on the bright terrain.  Inhospitable, to say the least!