Notes from AAS 234

I attended the 234th meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS), held in St. Louis, Missouri, June 9-13, 2019. Here are some highlights from that meeting.

Day 1 – Monday, June 10, 2019

Research Notes of the AAS is a non-peer-reviewed, indexed and secure record of works in progress, comments and clarifications, null results, or timely reports of observations in astronomy and astrophysics. RNAAS.

The Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society is the publication for science meeting abstracts, obituaries, commentary articles about the discipline, and white papers of broad interest to our community. BAAS.

We still have many unanswered questions about galaxy formation. The rate of star formation in galaxies and central black hole accretion activity was highest between 10 and 11 billion years ago. This corresponds to redshift z around 2 to 3, referred to as “cosmic high noon”. This is the ideal epoch for us to answer our questions about galaxy formation. Near-infrared spectroscopy is important to the study of galaxies during this epoch, and we are quite limited in what we can do from terrestrial observatories. Space based telescopes are needed, and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be key.

Galaxies are not closed boxes. We need to understand how inflows and outflows affect their evolution (“galactic metabolism”).

There are five international space treaties, with the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 being the first and most important. The United States has signed four of the five treaties. The Moon Agreement of 1979 which states that no entity can own any part of the Moon does not include the United States as one of the signatories.

U.S. Code 51303, adopted in 2015, identifies asteroid resource and space resource rights, and states that “A United States citizen engaged in commercial recovery of an asteroid resource or a space resource under this chapter shall be entitled to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained, including to possess, own, transport, use, and sell the asteroid resource or space resource obtained in accordance with applicable law, including the international obligations of the United States.”

So, unfortunately, U.S. law does allow a commercial entity to own an asteroid, but you have to get there first before you can claim it. The large metallic asteroid 16 Psyche is highly valuable and will probably be owned by some corporation in the not-too-distant future.

Space law often relies upon maritime law as a model.

Astronomer Vayu Gokhale from Truman State University gave an interesting iPoster Plus presentation on how he and his students are operating three automated and continuous zenithal sky brightness measurement stations using narrow-field Sky Quality Meters (SQMs) from Unihedron. Even measurements when it is cloudy are of value, as clouds reflect light pollution back towards the ground. Adding cloud type and height would allow us to make better use of cloudy-night sky brightness measurements. In a light-polluted area, the darkest place is the zenith, and clouds make the sky brighter. In an un-light-polluted area, the darkest place is the horizon, and clouds make the sky darker.

A number of precision radial velocity instruments for exoplanet discovery and characterization will begin operations soon or are already in operation: NEID, HARPS, ESPRESSO, EXPRES, and iLocater, to name a few.

Dark matter: clumps together under gravity, does not emit, reflect, or absorb electromagnetic radiation, and does not interact with normal matter in any way that causes the normal matter to emit, reflect, or absorb electromagnetic radiation. The ratio between dark matter and normal (baryonic matter) in our universe is 5.36 ± 0.05 (Planck 2018).

What is dark matter? It could be a new particle. If so, can we detect its non-gravitational interactions? It could be macroscopic objects, perhaps primordial black holes. Or, it could be a mixture of both. Another possibility is that a modification to the laws of gravitation will be needed to mimic the effects of dark matter.

How “dark” is dark matter? Does it interact at all (besides gravitationally)? Can dark matter annihilate or decay? Even if dark matter started hot, it cools down rapidly as the universe expands.

Primordial black holes could have masses ranging anywhere between 10-16 and 1010 solar masses. LIGO is possibility sensitive to colliding primordial black holes with masses in the range of a few to a few hundred solar masses. Primordial black holes are a fascinating dark matter candidate, with broad phenomenology.

The Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) is a nearly perfect blackbody with distortions < 1 part in 10,000. What this tells us is that nothing dramatically heated or cooled photons after 2 months after the Big Bang. Anisotropies are variances in the CMB temperature, and the angular power spectrum is variance of CMB temperature as a function of angular scale. CMB anisotropies are very sensitive to the ionization history of the universe. How the universe recombined plays a key role in CMB anisotropies.

Hydrogen: not such a simple atom.

The CMB is polarized. The polarization is caused by Mie scattering of photons.

At the NASA Town Hall, we learned about current and future missions: TESS, SPHEREx, HabEx, LUVOIR, Lynx, Origins Space Telescope (OST).

The highest image rate of standard CCD and CMOS video cameras for asteroid occultation work is 30 frames (60 fields) per second, providing time resolution of 0.017 seconds per field. Adaptive optics and autoguider imaging devices often have a higher sampling rate, and such a camera could perhaps be easily modified to be used for occultation work. A time-inserter would need to be added to the camera (either on-board or GPS-based), and improvements in quantum efficiency (because of the shorter exposures) would benefit from newer imaging technologies such as a Geiger-mode avalanche photodiode (APD); or the Single-photon avalanche detector (SPAD), which are frequently used in chemistry.

Gregory Simonian, graduate student at Ohio State, presented “Double Trouble: Biases Caused by Binaries in Large Stellar Rotation datasets”. The Kepler data yielded 34,030 rotation periods through starspot variability. However, the rapid rotators are mostly binaries. In the Kepler dataset, many rapid rotators have a spin period of the stars equal to the orbital period of the binary. These eclipsing binaries, also known as photometric binaries because they are detected through changes in brightness during eclipses and transits, need to be treated separately in stellar rotation datasets.

Granulation was discovered by William Herschel in 1801 and are vertical flows in the solar photosphere on the order of 1000 m/s, and 1000 km horizontal scale. Supergranulation (Hart 1954, Leighton et al. 1962) are horizontal motions in the photosphere of 300 to 500 m/s with a horizontal scale on the order of 30,000 km.

The amplitude of oscillations in red giants increase dramatically with age.

We’ve never observed the helium flash event in a red giant star, though models predict that it must occur. It is very brief and would be difficult to detect observationally.

Brad Schaefer, Professor Emeritus at Louisiana State University, gave a talk on “Predictions for Upcoming Recurrent Nova Eruptions”. Typically, recurrent novae have about a 30% variation in eruptive timescales, so predicting the next eruption is not trivial. Due to the solar gap (when the object is too close to the Sun to observe on or near the Earth), we are obviously missing some eruptions. However, orbital period changes (O-C curve) can tell us about an eruption we missed. U Sco and T CrB are well-known examples of recurrent novae. Better monitoring of recurrent novae is needed during the pre-eruption plateau. Monitoring in the blue band is important for prediction.

I had the good fortune to talk with Brad on several occasions during the conference, and found him to be enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and engaging. Perhaps you have seen The Remarkable Science of Ancient Astronomy (The Great Courses), and he is just as articulate and energetic in real life. Among other things, we discussed how the internet is filled with misinformation, and even after an idea has been convincingly debunked, the misinformation continues to survive and multiply in cyberspace. This is a huge problem in the field of archaeoastronomy and, indeed, all fields of study. People tend to believe what they want to believe, never mind the facts.

Astrobites is a daily astrophysical-literature blog written by graduate students in astronomy around the world. The goal of Astrobites is to present one interesting paper from astro-ph per day in a brief format accessible to its target audience: undergraduate students in the physical sciences who are interested in active research.

Helioseismology can be done both from space (all) and the ground (some). Active regions on the far side of the Sun can be detected with helioseismology.

All HMI (Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager) data from the Solar Dynamics Observatory is available online.

A good approach to studying solar data is to subtract the average differential rotation at each point/region on the Sun and look at the residuals.

The Wilcox Solar Observatory has been making sun-as-a-star mean magnetic field measurements since 1975.

It is possible to infer electric currents on the Sun, but this is much more difficult than measuring magnetic fields.

Future directions in solar studies: moving from zonal averages to localized regions in our modeling, and the ability through future space missions to continuously monitor the entire surface of the Sun at every moment.

Systematic errors are nearly always larger than statistical uncertainty.

Day 2 – Tuesday, June 11, 2019

It is probably not hyperbole to state that every star in our galaxy has planets. About 1/5 of G-type stars have terrestrial planets within the habitable zone. Life is widespread throughout the universe.

Gas-grain interaction is at the core of interstellar chemistry. Interstellar ices, charged ices, surface chemistry – there is more time for interactions to occur on a dust grain than in a gas. Grain collisions are important, too.

Hot cores are transient regions surrounding massive protostars very early in their evolution. Similar regions are identified around low-mass protostars and are called corinos.

Methanol (CH3OH) is key to making simple organic molecules (SOM). Evaporating ice molecules drive rich chemistry. Dust plays a key role in the chemistry and in transporting material from the interstellar medium (ISM) to planetary systems.

The Rosetta mission detected amino acids on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.

JUICE (JUpiter ICy moons Explorer) is an ESA mission scheduled to launch in 2022, will enter orbit around Jupiter in October 2029 and Ganymede in 2032. It will study Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto in great detail.

The gravitational wave event GW170817 (two infalling and colliding neutron stars) was also detected as a gamma-ray burst (GRB) by the Fermi gamma-ray space telescope, which has a gamma-ray burst detector that at all times monitors the 60% of the sky that is not blocked by the Earth.

The time interval between the GW and GRB can range between tens of milliseconds up to 10 seconds.

The Milky Way galaxy circumnuclear disk is best seen at infrared wavelengths around 50 microns. Linear polarization tells us the direction of rotation. The star cluster near the MW center energizes and illuminates gas structures. Gravity dominates in this region. The role of magnetic fields in this region has been a mystery.

Pitch angle – how tightly wound the spiral arms are in a spiral galaxy.

Are spiral arms transient or long lived? They are probably long lived. There may be different mechanisms of spiral arm formation in grand design spirals compared with other types of spiral galaxies.

In studying spiral galaxies, we often deproject to face-on orientation.

The co-rotation radius is the distance from the center of a spiral galaxy beyond which the stars orbit slower than the spiral arms. Inside this radius, the stars move faster than the spiral arms.

The Sun is located near the corotation circle of the Milky Way.

The origins of supermassive black holes (SMBH) at the centers of galaxies are unclear. Were they seeded from large gas clouds, or were they built up from smaller black holes?

The black holes at the centers of spiral galaxies tend to be more massive when the spiral arm winding is tight, and less massive when the spiral arm winding is loose.

Spiral Graph is in review as a Zooniverse project and has not yet launched. Citizen scientists will trace the spiral arms of 6,000 deprojected spiral galaxies, and 15 traces will be needed for each galaxy. Spiral arm tracings will provide astronomers with intermediate mass black hole candidate galaxies.

Barred spiral galaxies are very common. 66% to 75% of spiral galaxies show evidence of a bar at near-infrared wavelengths.

Magnetic fields in the inner regions of spiral galaxies are scrambling radio emissions to some extent, but radio astronomers have ways to deal with this.

For me, the plenary lecture given by Suvrath Mahadevan, Pennsylvania State University, was the first truly outstanding presentation. His topic was “The Tools of Precision Measurement in Exoplanet Discovery: Peeking Under the Hood of the Instruments”. His discussion of the advance in radial velocity instrumentation was revelatory to me, as his starting point was Roger F. Griffin’s radial velocity spectrometer we used at Iowa State University in the 1970s and 1980s, giving us a precision of about 1 km/s. My, we have come a long way since then!

St. Louis, MO – AAS 2019 – Suvrath Mahadevan during the Plenary Lecture at the American Astronomical Society’s 234th meeting at the Saint Louis Union Station Hotel in St. Louis, Missouri, Tuesday June 11, 2019. The AAS, established in 1899 and based in Washington, DC, is the major organization of professional astronomers in North America. More than 500 astronomers, educators, industry representatives, and journalists are spending the week in St. Louis to discuss the latest findings from across the universe. Photo by Phil McCarten, © 2019 AAS/CorporateEventImages.

To discover our Earth from another star system in the ecliptic plane would require detecting an 8.9 cm/s velocity shift in the Sun’s motion over the course of a year.

Precision radial velocity measurement requires we look at the displacement of thousands of spectral lines using high resolution spectroscopy.

The two main techniques are 1) Simultaneous reference and 2) Self reference (iodine cell). Also, externally dispersed interferometry and heterodyne spectroscopy can be used.

Griffin 1967 ~ km/s → CORAVEL 1979 ~300 m/s → CORALIE/ELODIE 1990 ~ 5-10 m/s → HARPS 2000 ~ 1 m/s → ESPRESSO/VLT, EXPRES/DCT, NEID/KPNO, HPF/HET.

We cannot build instruments that are stable over time at 10 cm/s resolution or less.

You can track the relative change in velocity much better than absolute velocity because of the “noise” generated by stellar internal motions.

Measuring the radial velocity at red or infrared wavelengths is best for M dwarfs, and cooler stars.

High radial velocity precision will require long-term observations, and a better understanding of and mitigation for stellar activity. Many things need to be considered: telescope, atmosphere, barycentric correction (chromatic effects can lead to 1/2 m/s error), fibers, modal noise, instrument decoupled from the telescope, calibrators, optics, stability, pipeline, etc. Interdisciplinary expertise is required.

NEID will measure wavelengths of 380 – 930 nm, and have a spectral resolution of R ~ 90,000.

Pushing towards 10 cm/s requires sub-milli-Kelvin instrument stability high-quality vacuum chambers, octagonal fibers, scrambling, and excellent guiding of the stellar image on the fiber to better than 0.05 arcseconds.

Precision radial velocity instruments such as NEID and HPF weigh two tons, so at present they can only be used with ground-based telescopes.

Charge Transfer Efficiency (CTE): need CCDs with CTE > 0.999999. Other CCD issues that don’t flat field out accurately: CCD stitch boundaries, cross hatching in NIR detectors, crystalline defects, sub-pixel quantum efficiency differences. Even the act of reading out the detector introduces a noise source.

10 cm/s is within reach from a purely instrumental perspective, but almost everything has to be just right. But we need to understand stellar activity better: granulation, supergranulation, flares, oscillations, etc. We may not be able to isolate these components of stellar activity, but we will certainly learn a lot in the process.

1s time resolution is required to properly apply barycentric corrections.

NASA’s Universe of Learning : Connecting Learners to the Subject-Matter Experts of NASA Astrophysics: https://www.universe-of-learning.org/

The OpenStax Astronomy Text: https://openstax.org/details/astronomy

Andrew Fraknoi gave an update on the OpenStax Astronomy text.

  • about 70 people have been involved in its development and vetting
  • each chapter includes collaborative group activities
  • math examples are in separate boxes
  • it is estimated that 500+ institutions have adopted this online and free introductory astronomy textbook, and ~200,000 students have used it, including ~30,000 amateur astronomers
  • multiple choice question bank for registered instructors
  • short videos with each chapter
  • available to everyone
St. Louis, MO – AAS 2019 – Attendees during the Eclipse Planning Workshop at the American Astronomical Society’s 234th meeting at the Saint Louis Union Station Hotel in St. Louis, Missouri, Sunday June 9, 2019. The AAS, established in 1899 and based in Washington, DC, is the major organization of professional astronomers in North America. More than 500 astronomers, educators, industry representatives, and journalists are spending the week in St. Louis to discuss the latest findings from across the universe. Photo by Phil McCarten, © 2019 AAS/CorporateEventImages.

Open Educational Resources (OER): https://www.oercommons.org/

International Lunar Observatory Association (ILOA); http://www.spaceagepub.com/ ; https://galaxyforum.org/

The surface of the Moon has a thinner atmosphere than low-Earth orbit.

Kenneth Gayley, University of Iowa, gave an interesting short talk, “The Real Explanation for Type Ia Supernovae and the Helium Flash”. Here’s the abstract: https://ui.adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2019AAS…23422404G/abstract . I’m looking forward to reading the entire paper.

Gene Byrd, University of Alabama, gave an interesting short presentation, “Two Astronomy Demos”. The first was “Stars Like Grains of Sugar”, reminiscent of Archimedes’ The Sand Reckoner. And “Phases with the Sun, Moon, and Ball”. He uses a push pin in a golf ball (the golf ball even has craters!). Morning works best for this activity. The Sun lights the golf ball and the Moon and they have the same phase—nice! Touching as well as seeing the golf ball helps students understand the phases of the Moon. Here’s a link to his paper on these two activities.

Daniel Kennefick, University of Arkansas, gave a short presentation on the 1919 eclipse expedition that provided experimental evidence (besides the correct magnitude of the perihelion precession of Mercury) that validated Einstein’s General Relativity. Stephen Hawking in his famous book A Brief History of Time mis-remembered that the 1979 re-analysis of the Eddington’s 1919 eclipse data showed that he may “fudged” the results to prove General Relativity to be correct. He did not! See Daniel Kennefick’s new book on the subject, No Shadow of a Doubt: The 1919 Eclipse That Confirmed Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

St. Louis, MO – AAS 2019 – Daniel J. Kennefick during the Press Conference: Spiral Galaxies Near and Far at the American Astronomical Society’s 234th meeting at the Saint Louis Union Station Hotel in St. Louis, Missouri, Tuesday June 11, 2019. The AAS, established in 1899 and based in Washington, DC, is the major organization of professional astronomers in North America. More than 500 astronomers, educators, industry representatives, and journalists are spending the week in St. Louis to discuss the latest findings from across the universe. Photo by Phil McCarten, © 2019 AAS/CorporateEventImages.

Brad Schaefer, Louisiana State University, gave another engaging talk, presenting evidence that the Australian aborigines may have discovered the variability of the star Betelgeuse, much earlier than the oft-stated discovery by John Herschel in 1836. Betelgeuse varies in brightness between magnitude 0.0 and +1.3 quasi-periodically over a period of about 423 days. It has been shown that laypeople can detect differences in brightness as small as 0.3 magnitude with the unaided eye, and with good comparison stars (like Capella, Rigel, Procyon, Pollux, Adhara, and Bellatrix—not all of which are visible from Australia—for Betelgeuse). It is plausible that the variability of Betelgeuse may have been discovered by many peoples at many different times. The Australian aborigines passed an oral tradition through many generations that described the variability of Betelgeuse. https://ui.adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2019AAS…23422407S/abstract.

As a longtime astronomical observer myself, I have actually never noticed the variability of Betelgeuse, but Brad has. After his presentation, I mentioned to Brad that it would be interesting to speculate what would lead early peoples to look for variability in stars in the first place, which seems to me to be a prerequisite for anyone discovering the variability of Betelgeuse. His response pointed out that all it would take is one observant individual in any society who would notice/record the variability and then point it out to others.

During the last plenary session of the day, it was announced that the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), which is expected to see first light in 2020, is expected to be renamed the Vera Rubin Survey Telescope. Tremendous applause followed! https://aas.org/posts/news/2019/06/lsst-may-be-renamed-vera-rubin-survey-telescope .

If you haven’t looked at the NASA/IPAC Extragalactic Database (NED) lately, you will find new content and functionality. It has been expanded a great deal, and now includes many stellar objects, because we don’t always know what is really a star and what is not. There is now a single input field where you can enter names, coordinates with search radius, etc. NED is “Google for Galaxies”.

I noticed during the 10-minute iPoster Plus sessions that there is a countdown timer displayed unobtrusively in the upper right hand corner that helps the presenter know how much time they have remaining. I think this would be a great device for anyone giving a short presentation in any venue.

St. Louis, MO – AAS 2019 – Attendees during the iPosters/iPosters Plus at the American Astronomical Society’s 234th meeting at the Saint Louis Union Station Hotel in St. Louis, Missouri, Monday June 10, 2019. The AAS, established in 1899 and based in Washington, DC, is the major organization of professional astronomers in North America. More than 500 astronomers, educators, industry representatives, and journalists are spending the week in St. Louis to discuss the latest findings from across the universe. Photo by Phil McCarten, © 2019 AAS/CorporateEventImages.

Galactic archaeology is the study of the oldest stars and other structures in our galaxy to better understand how our galaxy evolved.

The AAS has a YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UChXuQtcWbViLxCnzkvc4UZw/featured .

Day 2 ended with an evening presentation of “Cielo”, a documentary film by Alison McAlpine. Highly recommended!

St. Louis, MO – AAS 2019 – Attendees during the Cielo Film Screening at the American Astronomical Society’s 234th meeting at the Saint Louis Union Station Hotel in St. Louis, Missouri, Tuesday June 11, 2019. The AAS, established in 1899 and based in Washington, DC, is the major organization of professional astronomers in North America. More than 500 astronomers, educators, industry representatives, and journalists are spending the week in St. Louis to discuss the latest findings from across the universe. Photo by Phil McCarten, © 2019 AAS/CorporateEventImages.

I noted that “Cielo” was presented on the Documentary Channel in Canada. Too bad we do not have a channel like that here in the U.S.!

Day 3 – Wednesday, June 12, 2019
St. Louis, MO – AAS 2019 – Joshua Winn during the Plenary Lecture at the American Astronomical Society’s 234th meeting at the Saint Louis Union Station Hotel in St. Louis, Missouri, Wednesday June 12, 2019. The AAS, established in 1899 and based in Washington, DC, is the major organization of professional astronomers in North America. More than 500 astronomers, educators, industry representatives, and journalists are spending the week in St. Louis to discuss the latest findings from across the universe. Photo by Phil McCarten, © 2019 AAS/CorporateEventImages.

Day 3 began with what for me was the finest presentation of the entire conference: Joshua Winn, Princeton University, speaking on “Transiting Exoplanets: Past, Present, and Future”. I first became familiar with Josh Winn through watching his outstanding video course, The Search for Exoplanets: What Astronomers Know, from The Great Courses. I am currently watching his second course, Introduction to Astrophysics, also from The Great Courses. Josh is an excellent teacher, public speaker, and presenter, and it was a great pleasure to meet him at this conference.

Transits provide the richest source of information we have about exoplanets. For example, we can measure the obliquity of the star’s equator relative to the planet’s orbital plane by measuring the apparent Doppler shift of the star’s light throughout transit.

Who was the first to observe a planetary transit? Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655) was the first to observe a transit of Mercury across the Sun in November 1631. Jeremiah Horrocks (1618-1641) was the first to observe a transit of Venus across the Sun in November 1639. Christoph Scheiner (1573-1650) claimed in January 1612 that spots seen moving across the Sun were planets inside Mercury’s orbit transiting the Sun, but we know know of course that sunspots are magnetically cooled regions in the Sun’s photosphere and not orbiting objects at all. Though Scheiner was wrong about the nature of sunspots, his careful observations of them led him to become the first to measure the Sun’s equatorial rotation rate, the first to notice that the Sun rotated more slowly at higher latitudes, and the first to notice that the Sun’s equator is tilted with respect to the ecliptic, and to measure its inclination.

An exoplanet can be seen to transit its host star if the exoplanet’s orbit lies within the transit cone, an angle of 2R*/a centered on our line of sight to the star. R* is the star’s radius, and a is the semi-major axis of the planet’s orbit around the star.

Because of the geometry, we are only able to see transits of 1 out of every 215 Earth-Sun analogs.

Space is by far the best place to study transiting exoplanets.

If an exoplanet crosses a starspot, or a bright spot, on the star, you will see a “blip” in the transit light curve that looks like this:

Transiting exoplanet crossing a starspot (left) or bright spot (right) in the photosphere of the star

Are solar systems like our own rare? Not at all! There are powerful selection effects at work in exoplanet transit statistics. We have discovered a lot of “hot Jupiters” because large, close-in planets are much easier to detect with their short orbital periods and larger transit cones. In actuality, only 1 out of every 200 sun-like stars have hot Jupiters.

Planet statistical properties was the main goal of the Kepler mission. Here are some noteworthy discoveries:

Kepler 89 – two planets transiting at the same time (only known example)

Kepler 36 – chaotic three-body system

Kepler 16 – first known transiting exoplanet in a circumbinary orbit

Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) – Unlike Kepler, which is in an Earth-trailing heliocentric orbit, TESS is in a highly-elliptical orbit around the Earth with an apogee approximately at the distance of the Moon and a perigee of 108,000 km. TESS orbits the Earth twice during the time the Moon orbits once, a 2:1 orbital resonance with the Moon.

TESS has four 10.5 cm (4-inch) telescopes, each with a 24˚ field of view. Each TESS telescope is constantly monitoring 2300 square degrees of sky.

TESS is fundamentally about short period planets. Data is posted publicly as soon as it is calibrated. TESS has already discovered 700 planet candidates. About 1/2 to 2/3 will be true exoplanets. On average, TESS is observing stars that are about 4 magnitudes brighter than stars observed by Kepler.

The TESS Follow-Up Observing Program (TFOP) is a large working group of astronomical observers brought together to provide follow-up observations to support the TESS Mission’s primary goal of measuring the masses for 50 planets smaller than 4 Earth radii, in addition to organizing and carrying out follow-up of TESS Objects of Interest (TOIs).

HD 21749 – we already had radial velocity data going back several years for this star that hosts an exoplanet that TESS discovered

Gliese 357 – the second closest transiting exoplanet around an M dwarf, after HD 219134

TESS will tell us more about planetary systems around early-type stars.

TESS will discover other transient events, such as supernovae, novae, variable stars, etc. TESS will also make asteroseismology measurements and make photometric measurements of asteroids.

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be able to do follow-up spectroscopy of planetary atmospheres.

Upcoming exoplanet space missions: CHEOPS, PLATO, and WFIRST.

Hot Jupiter orbits should often be decaying, so this is an important area of study.

Sonification is the process of turning data into sound. For example, you could “listen” to a light curve (with harmonics, e.g. helioseismology and asteroseismology) of a year’s worth a data in just a minute or so.

Solar cycles have different lengths (11-ish years…).

Some predictions: 2019 will be the warmest year on record, 2020 will be less hot. Solar cycle 24 terminate in April 2020. Solar cycle 25 will be weaker than cycle 24. Cycle 25 will start in 2020 and will be the weakest in 300 years, the maximum (such as it is) occurring in 2025. Another informed opinion was that Cycle 25 will be comparable to Cycle 24.

Maunder minimum: 1645 – 1715

Dalton minimum: 1790 – 1820

We are currently in the midst of a modern Gleissberg minimum. It remains to be seen if it will be like the Dalton minimum or a longer “grand minimum” like the Maunder minimum.

Citizen scientists scanning Spitzer Space Telescope images in the Zooniverse Milky Way Project, have discovered over 6,000 “yellow balls”. The round features are not actually yellow, they just appear that way in the infrared Spitzer image color mapping.

Yellow balls (YBs) are sites of 8 solar mass or more star formation, surrounded by ionized hydrogen (H II) gas. YBs thus reveal massive young stars and their birth clouds.

Antlia 2 is a low-surface-brightness (“dark”) dwarf galaxy that crashed into our Milky Way galaxy. Evidence for this collision comes from “galactoseismology” which is the study of ripples in the Milky Way’s disk.

The Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC), and the Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy have all affected our Milky Way Galaxy, but galactoseismology has shown that there must be another perturber that has affected the Milky Way. Antlia 2, discovered in November 2018 from data collected by the Gaia spacecraft, appears to be that perturber.

Gaia Data Release 2 (DR2) indicates that the Antlia 2 dwarf galaxy is about 420,000 ly distant, and it is similar in extent to the LMC. It is an ultra-diffuse “giant” dwarf galaxy whose stars average two magnitudes fainter than the LMC. Antlia 2 is located 11˚ from the galactic plane and has a mass around 1010 solar masses.

A question that is outstanding is what is the density of dark matter in Antlia 2? In the future, Antlia 2 may well be an excellent place to probe the nature of dark matter.

Gravity drives the formation of cosmic structure, dark energy slows it down.

Stars are “noise” for observational cosmologists.

“Precision” cosmology needs accuracy also.

The Vera Rubin telescope (Large Synoptic Survey Telescope) in Chile will begin full operations in 2022, collecting 20 TB of data each night!

We have a “galaxy bias” – we need to learn much more about the relation between galaxy populations and matter distribution.

Might there be an irregular asymmetric cycle underlying the regular 22-year sunspot cycle? The dominant period associated with this asymmetry is around 35 to 50 years.

The relationship between differential rotation and constant effective temperature of the Sun: the Sun has strong differential rotation along radial lines, and there is little variation of solar intensity with latitude.

Solar filaments (solar prominences) lie between positive and negative magnetic polarity regions.

Alfvén’s theorem: in a fluid with infinite electric conductivity, the magnetic field is frozen into the fluid and has to move along with it.

Some additional solar terms and concepts to look up and study: field line helicity, filament channels, kinetic energy equation, Lorentz force, magnetic energy equation, magnetic flux, magnetic helicity, magnetohydrodynamics (MHD), meridional flow, polarity inversion lines, relative helicity, sheared arcade, solar dynamo.

Filamentary structures: barbs, Hα, dextral, sinistral.

We would like to be able to predict solar eruptions before they happen.

  1. Magnetic helicity is injected by surface motions.
  2. It accumulates at polarity inversion lines.
  3. It is removed by coronal mass ejections.
Day 4 – Thursday, June 13, 2019

Cahokia (our name for it today) was the largest city north of Mexico 1,000 years ago. It was located at the confluence of the Mississippi, Missouri, and Illinois Rivers. At its height from 1050 – 1200 A.D., Cahokia city covered 6 square miles and had 10,000 to 20,000 people. Cahokia was a walled city. Some lived inside the walls, and others lived outside the walls.

Around 120 mounds were built at greater Cahokia; 70 are currently protected. Platform mounds had buildings on top, and some mounds were used for burial and other uses.

Monks mound is the largest prehistoric earthwork in the Americas. Mound 72 has an appalling history.

Woodhenge – controversial claim that it had an astronomical purpose. Look up Brad Schaefer’s discussion, “Case studies of three of the most famous claimed archaeoastronomical alignments in North America”.

Cahokia’s demise was probably caused by many factors, including depletion of resources and prolonged drought. We do not know who the descendents of the Cahokia people are. It is possible that they died out completely.

The Greeks borrowed many constellations from the Babylonians.

One Sky, Many Astronomies

The neutron skin of a lead nucleus (208Pb) is a useful miniature analog for a neutron star.

Infalling binary neutron stars, such as GW 170817, undergo tidal deformation.

SmallSats

  • Minisatellite: 100-180 kg
  • Microsatellite: 10-100 kg
  • Nanosatellite: 1-10 kg
  • Picosatellite: 0.01-1 kg
  • Femtosatellite: 0.001-0.01 kg

CubeSats are a class of nanosatellites that use a standard size and form factor. The standard CubeSat size uses a “one unit” or “1U” measuring 10 × 10 × 10 cm and is extendable to larger sizes, e.g. 1.5, 2, 3, 6, and even 12U.

The final plenary lecture and the final session of the conference was a truly outstanding presentation by James W. Head III, Brown University, “The Apollo Lunar Exploration Program: Scientific Impact and the Road Ahead”. Head is a geologist who trained the Apollo astronauts for their Moon missions between 1969 and 1972.

St. Louis, MO – AAS 2019 – James Head during the Plenary Lecture at the American Astronomical Society’s 234th meeting at the Saint Louis Union Station Hotel in St. Louis, Missouri, Thursday June 13, 2019. The AAS, established in 1899 and based in Washington, DC, is the major organization of professional astronomers in North America. More than 500 astronomers, educators, industry representatives, and journalists are spending the week in St. Louis to discuss the latest findings from across the universe. Photo by Phil McCarten, © 2019 AAS/CorporateEventImages.

During the early years of the space program, the United States was behind the Soviet Union in space technology and accomplishments. The N1 rocket was even going to deliver one or two Soviet cosmonauts to lunar orbit so they could land on the Moon.

Early in his presidency, John F. Kennedy attempted to engage the Soviet Union in space cooperation.

Chris Kraft’s book, Flight: My Life in Mission Control is recommended.

The Apollo astronauts (test pilots) were highly motivated students.

The United States flew 21 robotic precursor missions to the Moon in the eight years before Apollo 11. Rangers 1-9 were the first attempts, but 1 through 6 were failures and we couldn’t even hit the Moon.

Head recommends the recent documentary, Apollo 11, but called First Man Hollywood fiction, saying, “That is not the Neil Armstrong I knew.”

The Apollo 11 lunar samples showed us that the lunar maria (Mare Tranquillitatis) has an age of 3.7 Gyr and has a high titanium abundance.

The Apollo 12 lunar excursion module (LEM) landed about 600 ft. from the Surveyor 3 probe in Oceanus Procellarum, and samples from that mission were used to determine the age of that lunar maria as 3.2 Gyr.

Scientists worked shoulder to shoulder with the engineers during the Apollo program, contributing greatly to its success.

Apollo 11 landed at lunar latitude 0.6˚N, Apollo 12 at 3.0˚S, Apollo 14 at 3.6˚S, and Apollo 15 at 26.1˚N. Higher latitude landings required a plane change and a more complex operation to return the LEM to the Command Module.

The lunar rover was first used on Apollo 15, and allowed the astronauts to travel up to 7 km from the LEM. Head said that Dave Scott did remarkable geological investigations on this mission. He discovered and returned green glass samples, and in 2011 it was determined that there is water inside those beads. Scott also told a little fib to Mission Control to buy him enough time to pick up a rock that turned out to be very important, the “seat belt basalt”.

In speaking about Apollo 16, Head called John Young “one of the smartest astronauts in the Apollo program”.

Harrison Schmitt, Apollo 17, was the only professional geologist to go to the Moon, and he discovered the famous “orange soil”. This is the mission where the astronauts repaired a damaged fender on the lunar rover using duct tape and geological maps to keep them from getting covered in dust while traveling in the rover.

When asked about the newly discovered large mass under the lunar surface, Head replied that it is probably uplifted mantle material rather than an impactor mass underneath the surface.

Radiometric dating of the Apollo lunar samples have errors of about ± 5%.

One of the reasons the Moon’s albedo is low is that space weather has darkened the surface.

The South Pole-Aitken basin is a key landing site for future exploration. In general, both polar regions are of great interest.

Smaller objects like the Moon and Mars cooled efficiently after their formation because of their high surface area to volume ratio.

We do not yet know if early Mars was warm and wet, or cold and icy with warming episodes. The latter is more likely if our solar system had a faint young sun.

Venus has been resurfaced in the past 0.5 Gyr, and there is no evidence of plate tectonics. The first ~80% of the history of Venus is unknown. Venus probably had an ocean and tectonic activity early on, perhaps even plate tectonics. Venus may have undergone a density inversion which exchanged massive amounts of material between the crust and mantle. 80% of the surface of Venus today is covered by lava flows.

A mention was made that a new journal of Planetary Science (in addition to Icarus, presumably) will be coming from the AAS soon.

St. Louis, MO – AAS 2019 – Attendees during the Donors, Sponsors, and 40+E Reception at the American Astronomical Society’s 234th meeting at the Saint Louis Union Station Hotel in St. Louis, Missouri, Wednesday June 12, 2019. The AAS, established in 1899 and based in Washington, DC, is the major organization of professional astronomers in North America. More than 500 astronomers, educators, industry representatives, and journalists are spending the week in St. Louis to discuss the latest findings from across the universe. Photo by Phil McCarten, © 2019 AAS/CorporateEventImages.
St. Louis, MO – AAS 2019 – Attendees during the Donors, Sponsors, and 40+E Reception at the American Astronomical Society’s 234th meeting at the Saint Louis Union Station Hotel in St. Louis, Missouri, Wednesday June 12, 2019. The AAS, established in 1899 and based in Washington, DC, is the major organization of professional astronomers in North America. More than 500 astronomers, educators, industry representatives, and journalists are spending the week in St. Louis to discuss the latest findings from across the universe. Photo by Phil McCarten, © 2019 AAS/CorporateEventImages.

I attend a lot of meetings and lectures (both for astronomy and SAS), and I find that I am one of the few people in attendance who write down any notes. Granted, a few are typing at their devices, but one never knows if they are multitasking instead. For those that don’t take any notes, I wonder, how do they really remember much of what they heard days or weeks later without having written down a few keywords and phrases and then reviewing them soon after? I did see a writer from Astronomy Magazine at one of the press conferences writing notes in a notebook as I do. I believe it was Jake Parks.

Anyone who knows me very well knows that I love traveling by train. To attend the AAS meeting, I took a Van Galder bus from Madison to Chicago, and then Amtrak from Chicago to St. Louis. Pretty convenient that the AAS meeting was held at the Union Station Hotel, just a few blocks from Amtrak’s Gateway Station. It is a fine hotel with a lot of history, and has an excellent on-site restaurant. I highly recommend this hotel as a place to stay and as a conference venue.

The bus and train ride to and fro afforded me a great opportunity to catch up on some reading. Here are a few things worth sharing.

astrometry.net – you can upload your astronomical image and get back an image with all the objects in the image astrometrically annotated. Wow!

16 Psyche, the most massive metal-rich asteroid, is the destination for a NASA orbiter mission that is scheduled to launch in 2022 and arrive at Psyche in 2026. See my note about 16 Psyche in the AAS notes above.

The lowest hourly meteor rate for the northern hemisphere occurs at the end of March right after the vernal equinox.

A tremendous, dynamic web-based lunar map is the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) Quickmap, quickmap.lroc.asu.edu.

I read with great interest Dr. Ken Wishaw’s article on pp. 34-38 in the July 2019 issue of Sky & Telescope, “Red Light Field Test”. Orange or amber light is probably better that red light for seeing well in the dark while preserving your night vision. You can read his full report here. Also, see my article “Yellow LED Astronomy Flashlights” here.

Jupiter and Saturn will have a spectacular conjunction next year. As evening twilight fades on Monday, December 21, 2020, the two planets will be just 1/10th of a degree apart, low in the southwestern sky.

An oblate spheroid with axes a = b > c is called a Maclaurin spheroid. If all three axes have different lengths a > b > c, then you have a Jacobi ellipsoid.

The light curve of a stellar occultation by a minor planet (asteroid or TNO) resembles a square well if the object has no atmosphere (or one so thin that it cannot be detected, given the sampling rate and S/N), and the effects of Fresnel diffraction and the star’s angular diameter are negligible.

Astronomer Margaret Burbidge, who turns 100 on August 12, 2019, refused the AAS Annie Jump Cannon Award in 1972, stating in her rejection letter that “it is high time that discrimination in favor of, as well as against, women in professional life be removed, and a prize restricted to women is in this category.” In 1976, Margaret Burbidge became the first woman president of the AAS, and in 1978 she announced that the AAS would no longer hold meetings in the states that had not ratified the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).

During the days following the conference when I was writing this report, I received the happy news from both the AAS and Sky & Telescope that AAS was the winning bidder of S&T during a bankruptcy auction of its parent company, F+W Media. I believe that this partnership between the AAS and Sky & Telescope will benefit both AAS members and S&T readers immensely. Peter Tyson, Editor in Chief of Sky & Telescope, stated in the mutual press release, “It feels like S&T is finally landing where it belongs.” I couldn’t agree more!

A Shroud of Satellites

The first five Iridium satellites were launched on May 5, 1997, and by 2002 there were 66 operational satellites, providing consistent global satellite phone coverage. These satellites have the interesting property that their antenna panels sometimes reflect sunlight down to the Earth’s surface, causing what came to be known as “Iridium flares”, delighting terrestrial observers—myself included. During an Iridium flare event, the satellite suddenly appears and gradually brightens and then dims to invisibility as it moves slowly across a section of sky over several seconds. Many of these events reach negative magnitude, with some getting as bright as magnitude -9.5.

The next generation of Iridium satellites began launching in 2017, but these satellites are constructed in such a way that they do not produce flares. Gradually, the original Iridium satellites are de-orbiting (or being de-orbited), so eventually there will be no more Iridium flares.

The Iridium flares haven’t been much of a nuisance to astronomers because the number of events per night for a given observer have been in the single digits.

But now we’re facing too much of a good thing. The first volley of 60 Starlink satellites was launched on May 24, with 12,000 expected to be in orbit by 2028. These satellites will provide broadband internet service to the entire planet. Though the Starlink satellites aren’t expected to produce spectacular flares like the first generation of the Iridium satellites, they do reflect sunlight as any satellite does, and the sheer number of them in relatively low Earth orbit is sure to cause a lot of headaches for astronomers and stargazers throughout the world.

I estimate that about 468 of the 12,000 satellites will be above your horizon at any given moment, but how many of them will be visible will depend on their altitude (both in terms of distance above the Earth’s surface and degrees above the horizon), and where they are relative to the Earth’s shadow cone (they have to be illuminated by sunlight to be seen).

And Starlink will not be the only swarm of global broadband internet satellites, as other companies and countries plan to fly their own satellite constellations.

This situation illustrates yet another reason why we need a binding set of international laws that apply to all nations and are enforced by a global authority. The sooner we have this the better, as our survival may depend upon it. How else can we effectively confront anthropogenic climate change and the precipitous decline in biodiversity?

As for these swarms of satellites, two requirements are needed now to minimize their impact on astronomy:

  1. Build the satellites with minimally reflective materials and finishes
  2. Fly one internationally-managed robust constellation of global broadband internet satellites, and require competing companies and nations to utilize them, similar to the co-location often required for terrestrial communication towers

I’d like to close this piece with a few questions. Will future “stargazers” go out to watch all the satellites and generally ignore the real stars and constellations because they are too “boring”? Will professional astronomers increasingly have to move their operations off the Earth’s surface to the far side of the Moon and beyond? Will we continue to devalue the natural world and immerse ourselves ever more deeply into our human-invented virtual environments?

NASA News Releases

I receive dozens of emails each day, and chances are you do, too.  But one email list I think you should seriously consider subscribing to is the NASA News Releases.  There have been 115 news releases and 185 media advisories issued so far this year, so that averages to about one email a day.  The quality of these news releases is consistently high—they are far better written and information rich than most of what clutters up our inboxes or what you’ll find on a typical internet news site.

Take, for example, the two news releases that were issued on December 10:

RELEASE 18-114
NASA’s Newly Arrived OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft Already Discovers Water on Asteroid

RELEASE 18-115
NASA’s Voyager 2 Probe Enters Interstellar Space

Subscribing is easy:

NASA news releases and other information are available automatically by sending an e-mail message with the subject line subscribe to hqnews-request@newsletters.nasa.gov. 
To unsubscribe from the list, send an e-mail message with the subject line unsubscribe to hqnews-request@newsletters.nasa.gov.

Satellite, Meteor, and Aircraft Crossings 2018

Edmund Weiss (1837-1917) and many astronomers since have called asteroids “vermin of the sky”, but since October 4, 1957 another “species” of sky vermin made their debut: artificial satellites.  In the process of video recording stars for possible asteroid occultations, I frequently see satellites passing through my ~¼° field of view.

I’ve put together a video montage and some individual videos of satellites I’ve recorded between March 10, 2018 and November 24, 2018.  All of the events are shown below, with the boldface events being presented chronologically in the first video.  Both the NORAD and International designations are given for each satellite.  The range is the distance between observer and satellite at the time of observation.

UT Date
3-10-2018
3-25-2018
4-1-2018
4-2-2018
5-5-2018
7-6-2018
7-26-2018
7-31-2018
8-3-2018
8-23-2018
9-16-2018
10-21-2018 (2 satellites)
10-24-2018

Target Star
UCAC4 459-002239
TYC 621-45742-1
UCAC4 497-035454
UCAC4 416-092784
UCAC4 385-061427
N Sct 2018
UCAC4 429-110724
UCAC4 384-149264
UCAC4 362-194694
UCAC4 526-007192
UCAC4 316-210974
UCAC4 418-144100
UCAC4 302-215969

Satellite
SL-8 RB (Kosmos 726)
unknown space debris
unknown satellite
unknown satellite
unknown satellite
Ariane 5 RB (Payload A)
SL-8 RB (Kosmos 726)
Ariane 5 RB (VA209)
YURI 2A (BS-2A)
Kosmos 1092
SL-8 RB (Kosmos 80)
Galaxy 17 & NIMIQ 6
Sentinel 1B

Satellite
SL-8 RB (Kosmos 726)
unknown space debris
unknown satellite
unknown satellite
unknown satellite
Ariane 5 RB (Payload A)
SL-8 RB (Kosmos 726)
Ariane 5 RB (VA209)
YURI 2A (BS-2A)
Kosmos 1092
SL-8 RB (Kosmos 80)
Galaxy 17
NIMIQ 6
Sentinel 1B

Designation
7737; 1975-028-B
unknown
unknown
unknown
unknown
27946; 2003-043-B
7737; 1975-028-B
38780; 2012-051-C
14659; 1984-005-A
11326; 1979-030-A
1575; 1965-070-F
31307; 2007-016-B
38342; 2012-026-A
41456; 2016-025-A

Range & Direction
2,199.9 km SE
unknown SE
unknown SE
unknown NE
unknown NE
34,141.7 km NE
1,483.2 km SE
18,153.7 km NE
39,042.5 km NE
1,870.9 km NE
3,137.8 km NE
37,737.7 km E
37,736.3 km E
2,028.6 km NW

You’ll notice that sometimes the satellite crosses the field as a moving “dash”. That’s because sometimes I used longer exposure times to record a fainter target star.  A wind gust hit the telescope during the second event (3-25-2018).  The field is oriented North up and East to the left.  In this first video, you’ll notice that Sentinel 1B (the last event) has a unusual retrograde orbit (sun-synchronous) and is moving towards the NW.

In general, the slower the satellite is moving across the field, the higher is its orbit around the Earth.  One must also consider how much of the satellite’s orbital motion is along your line of sight to the satellite.

In the following video clip, you’ll see an unidentified piece of space debris, a very faint “dash” (due to integration) moving NE across the field from lower right to upper left, recorded on May 5, 2018 UT.

Next, we see a Ariane rocket body used to hoist SMART-1 towards the Moon and the Insat 3E and eBird 1 towards their geostationary orbits.  This recording was made on July 6, 2018 UT.  The rocket body is traveling NE (mostly east).  The light curve below the video suggests the possibility of some tumbling motion, but the satellite is faint and the photometry noisy.

And here is a rapidly tumbling (but low amplitude) Ariane rocket body, observed on July 31, 2018 UT and traveling NE.

Here is a no-longer-operational Japanese communications satellite named Yuri 2A, launched in 1984 and captured here on August 3, 2018 UT.  It is traveling NE (mostly east) and shows a beautiful long-period large-amplitude light curve.

Finally, we see not one but two geostationary communication satellites, Galaxy 17 (first and fainter) and NIMIQ 6 moving east across the field (as my telescope tracks westward to follow the Earth’s rotation), captured here on October 21, 2018 UT.  Galaxy 17 exhibits no discernible rotation, but NIMIQ 6 shows a low-amplitude long-period change in brightness.

Next we turn to three telescopic meteors I recorded on June 4, July 7, and September 11, 2018 UT.

UT Date
6-4-2018
7-7-2018
9-11-2018

Target Star
UCAC4 408-094611
UCAC4 275-188730
UCAC4 399-093188

Constellation & Direction
Scutum, SSE
Sagittarius, SW
Scutum, NNE

Here these meteors are presented in a video montage.

I even captured an airplane crossing the field on August 22, 2018 UT:

References
Hughes, D. W. & Marsden, B. G. 2007, J. Astron. Hist. Heritage, 10, 21

Radio Quiet Zones

If you thought light pollution is bad (and it is!), radio pollution for radio astronomers is much worse.  Even years ago, terrestrial pollution of the radio spectrum tended to swamp faint celestial sources at many frequencies, and in 1958 the FCC established a 13,000 square mile rectangular region of West Virginia, Virginia, and Maryland as the National Radio Quiet Zone.  Two facilities within this protected region—whose natural topography helps to screen out many terrestrial radio emissions—are the Sugar Grove Station and the Green Bank Observatory near Green Bank, West Virginia.  The world’s largest fully-steerable radio telescope dish was built at Green Bank in 1956.  Though the original 300-ft. dish collapsed in 1988 due to a structural failure, it was rebuilt in 2000 as the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, a leading facility for radio astronomy.

National Radio Quiet Zone

Counties wholly within the NRQZ, where many radio-emitting sources are regulated or banned outright, are Alleghany, Augusta, Bath, Highland, Nelson, and Rockbridge in Virginia, and Hardy, Pendleton, Pocahontas, Randolph, and Upshur in West Virginia.

The NRQZ isn’t the only radio quiet zone.  Here are some others:

  • Arecibo Observatory, Puerto Rico
  • Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act (AGAA), South Africa
  • Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), Chile
  • Australian Radio Quiet Zone WA (ARQZWA), Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO)
  • Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory (DRAO), Canada
  • Five hundred meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST), China
  • Institute for Radio Astronomy in the Millimeter Range (IRAM), Spain
  • Itapetinga Radio Observatory (IRO), Brazil
  • Large Millimeter Telescope (LMT), Mexico
  • Pushchino Radio Astronomy Observatory, Russia

The best place in the world to do radio astronomy is not on our world at all but instead on the far side of the Moon.  Radio telescopes deployed on the lunar farside could “listen” to the universe with absolutely no interference from Earth.  The solid body of the Moon (and its lack of an atmosphere) would completely block all radio signals and noise emanating from the Earth and Earth orbit.  And some radio telescopes could be quickly and easily deployed (think long-wire antennas rather than radio dishes).  Of course, the Moon itself will need to be designated as a radio quiet zone so that any lunar colonies, rovers, or satellites operate at frequencies and times that will not interfere with scientific work.  Maybe infrared or optical lasers would be a better way to communicate?

How would data from a lunar farside radio observatory be transmitted back to Earth?  One way would be to have a dedicated lunar satellite that receives data from the radio observatory while it is traveling over the lunar farside.  It would then re-transmit that data to Earth while it is traveling over the Earth-facing nearside.

Another (probably more expensive) approach would be to have a series of radio relay towers spaced at intervals from the radio observatory around to the lunar nearside where a transmitter could send the data back to Earth.

A third choice would be to locate the radio observatory in a libration zone along the border between the lunar nearside and farside.  At a libration zone radio observatory, data would be collected and stored until each time libration allows a direct line-of-sight to Earth.

The crater Daedalus, near the center of the lunar farside, has been suggested as the best location for a radio astronomy facility on the Moon (Pagana et al. 2006).

There is also a region above the farside lunar surface where radio emissions from Earth and Earth-orbiting satellites, would be blocked by the Moon, called the “Quiet Cone”, as illustrated in the diagram below.

The Earth-Moon L2 Lagrange point (EML2) is probably going to be within the lunar quiet cone.  Because L2 is an unstable Lagrange point, a radio telescope in the quiet cone would need to be in a halo orbit about EML2, and a tight one at that to avoid “seeing” any radio emissions from the highest Earth-orbiting satellites.

https://i2.wp.com/2.bp.blogspot.com/-ZQVqI6ob6jA/VVJbJS_DYDI/AAAAAAAABCM/jLNBE_lRVxU/s640/EarthMoon5LPoints.jpg?w=840&ssl=1

References
Antonietti, N.; Pagana, G.; Pluchino, S.; Maccone, C.
A proposed space mission around the Moon to measure the Moon Radio-Quiet Zone, 36th COSPAR Scientific Assembly. Held 16 – 23 July 2006, in Beijing, China.

Satellite (and Meteor ) Crossings 2017-2018

Edmund Weiss (1837-1917) and many astronomers since have called asteroids “vermin of the sky”, but since October 4, 1957 another “species” of sky vermin made their debut: artificial satellites.  In the process of video recording stars for possible asteroid occultations, I frequently see satellites passing through my ~¼° field of view.

I’ve put together a video montage of satellites I’ve recorded between June 21, 2017 and October 20, 2017.  The component events are presented chronologically as follows:

UT Date
6-21-2017
8-15-2017
9-4-2017
9-5-2017
9-12-2017
10-20-2017 (2 satellites)

Target Star
Tycho 5723-663-1
Tycho 1668-1258-1
Tycho 1281-225-1
UCAC4 553-20591
Tycho 5731-996-1
Tycho 6289-1504-1

Asteroid
798 Ruth
30981(1995 SJ4)
34532 (2000 SO213)
1294 Antwerpia
85985 (1999 JW)
25036 Elizabethof

You’ll notice that sometimes the satellite crosses the field as a moving “dash”.  That’s because sometimes I used longer exposure times to record a fainter target star.

 

In general, the slower the satellite is moving across the field, the higher is its orbit around the Earth.  One must also consider how much of the satellite’s orbital motion is along your line of sight to the satellite.  In the following video clip, you’ll see a slow-moving “tumbler” satellite moving from right to left across the top of the field.

UT Date
8-25-2017

Target Star
Tycho 676-828-1

Asteroid
179462 (2002 AJ202)

 

On January 10th of this year, I figured out how to identify satellites crossing the telescope field of view using the amazing program Guide 9.1, which I use for all my observatory research work.  On March 4th, I was hoping to be the first to record the asteroid 3706 Sinnott passing in front of a star.  This asteroid is named after Sky & Telescope Senior Editor Roger Sinnott, whom I had the good fortune to work with in writing the article “A Roll-Down-Roof Observatory” in the May 1993 issue of Sky & Telescope, p. 90.  Roger is amazing.  He took an article that I had written and edited it in a way that only lightly touched my original text yet ended up saying what I wanted to say even better than I was able to say it myself.  The mark of a great editor!  Anyway, I’m sure Roger remembers me and I was looking forward to giving him the news that I had observed the first stellar occultation by “his” asteroid.  Alas, it was not to be, because, as so often happens, the too-faint-to-be-seen asteroid passed either above or below the target star.  The consolation prize, however, was recording a third stage Long March Chinese rocket booster (CZ-3B R/B; NORAD 43004U; International # 17069D) passing through the field.  This rocket launched on November 5, 2017, and added two satellites to China’s Beidou positioning network.  As you can see in the light curve below, the rotation period of the rocket booster is a bit longer than the 19 seconds of usable video I had.

UT Date
3-4-2018

Target Star
UCAC4 556-42881

Asteroid
3706 Sinnott

 

Once in a great while, I record a telescopic meteor.  Here are two.

UT Date
7-15-2017
3-4-2018

Target Star
Tycho 6269-2747-1
UCAC4 561-14746

Asteroid
17136(1999 JE82)
6890 Savinykh

References
Hughes, D. W. & Marsden, B. G. 2007, J. Astron. Hist. Heritage, 10, 21

Spirit and Opportunity

The Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity landed on Mars on January 4, 2004 and January 25, 2004, respectively.  Spirit continued operating until contact was lost on March 22, 2010, a total of 2,269 Earth days, which is 2,208 days on Mars (sols)1Spirit operated on the Martian surface 24.5 times as long as its design life of 90 sols.

Even more amazing: Opportunity has been operating on the Martian surface (as of this publication date) for 5,108 Earth days, which is 4,971 sols.   That’s 55.2 times its design life of 90 sols!

Spirit and Opportunity faced their greatest challenge up to that point during the global Martian dust storm of July 2007.  Here is what I wrote about it back then.

Spirit and Opportunity‘s Greatest Challenge (7-26-07)

The intrepid Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity—which have been operating on the surface of Mars over 14 times longer than planned—each carry two 8 amp-hour lithium batteries, and these batteries are charged by solar panels.  Before dust storms began significantly reducing the amount of sunlight reaching the rovers’ solar panels, they were generating about 700 watt-hours of electricity each day—enough to power a 100-watt light bulb for seven hours.  Not much, it may seem, but plenty enough to operate each rover’s internal heaters, motors, scientific instruments, and communication equipment.

In recent weeks, both rovers have seriously been affected by the dust storms, particularly Opportunity which last week was able to generate only 128 watt-hours of electricity on the worst day.  With precious little energy to replenish the internal batteries, controllers have hunkered down the rovers to conserve energy for the most critical need—internal heaters to keep the core electronics warm enough to operate.  Remember, the average surface temperature on Mars is -85° F!

At press time, weather conditions appear to be improving for both rovers, but there are still worries that the rovers could have been damaged by all that dust blowing at them for days on end.


As it turns out, after the global dust storm of 2007 subsided, the rovers benefited from subsequent “cleaning events” where the winds of Mars blew most of the dust off of the solar panels.

There have been no global dust storms on Mars since 2007; however, another one is anticipated later this year.  Hopefully, our intrepid Opportunity will weather the storm and continue to generate enough life-giving power from its precious solar panels .

1A Martian day is called a sol and is slightly longer than an Earth day.  A mean solar day on Earth is 24h00m00s, by definition, but a mean solar day on Mars is 24h39m35.244s Earth time.  To convert Earth days to Martian sols, divide the number of Earth days by 1.0275.

Mid-Winter Mid-Night Satellite

While video recording the star Tycho 1311-1818-1 in Taurus on a very cold Thursday evening last week (-4° F) in the hope that asteroid 126561 (2002 CF105) would pass in front of it (it didn’t), I was surprised and delighted to serendipitously record a very slow moving Earth-orbiting satellite crossing the field.  Now, in order to see a satellite, it must be illuminated by sunlight.  But to see any satellite during the first week of January only 10 minutes before local midnight, it must be very far from the Earth indeed (more on that later).

Here’s a video of the event showing its complete traversal of the field of view:

Slow-Moving Satellite

I’m hoping that one of the good people that frequent the satellite observers’ forum SeeSat-L will be able to identify this unusual object.  Requisite to that, of course, are two precise positions at two precise times and the observer’s location.

A very useful online tool provided by the Department of Physics at Virginia Tech allows one to input the right ascension, declination, and x-y coordinates of between 4 and 10 known objects, and it does an astrometric solution across the field so you can determine the right ascension and declination of an unknown object.

Using Guide 9.1, Limovie, and this tool, I determined the following:

At 5 Jan 2018 5:42:58.122 UT, the satellite was located at:
5h45m48.14s +21°45’17.5″ (apparent coordinates, epoch of date).

At 5 Jan 2018 5:50:22.931 UT, the satellite was located at:
5h46m53.98s +21°48’06.3″ (apparent coordinates, epoch of date).

Observer Location: 42°57’36.9″N, 90°08’31.1″ W, 390 m.

Using the satellite coordinates above, and the angular separation calculator kindly provided by the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, we find that the satellite traversed just 0.2590° in 0.1236 hours.  That’s 2.095° per hour, or only about four moon diameters in an hour!

Surely, this satellite must be way out there.  How far?  To determine that, I did a couple of what we used to call during my college physics days “back-of-the-envelope” (BOTEC) calculations.  These are rough approximations—using simplifying assumptions—that should get you to an answer that is at least the right order of magnitude.

If we can estimate the orbital angular velocity of the satellite, we can determine its orbital period, and if we could determine that, we can calculate it orbital distance.  Now, we don’t know yet if this satellite is in a near-circular or highly-elliptical orbit.  If the satellite is an a highly-elliptical orbit and we observe it near apogee, its angular velocity will be somewhat slower than the angular velocity of a circular orbit at that same distance.  If we observe it near perigee, then its angular velocity will be somewhat faster that the angular velocity of a circular orbit at that same distance.  First simplifying assumption: let’s assume a circular orbit.

The next simplifying assumptions are that (1) the satellite passes through the observer’s zenith, and (2) the distance to the satellite is large in comparison to the radius of the Earth.  At the time of observation, the satellite was at an altitude between 65° and 66° above the horizon.  Not quite the zenith, but maybe close enough.

First, we need to compensate for the fact that the observer’s location on the surface of the Earth is moving in the same direction (along right ascension) as the satellite is orbiting (eastward) as the Earth rotates.  We need to add the Earth’s rotational velocity to the right ascension component of the satellite’s velocity to get its true angular velocity relative to the center of the Earth.  This of course assumes that the radius of the Earth is small compared to the distance to the satellite.

During the 0.1236 hours we observed the satellite, it moved 0.2743° eastward in right ascension and 0.0469° northward in declination.  We now need to add a portion of the Earth’s angular velocity to the right ascension component of the satellite’s angular velocity.  If the satellite were at the north celestial pole, the amount we would add would be zero.  If, on the other hand, the satellite were on the celestial equator, we would add the full amount.  Since cos 90° is 0 and cos 0° is 1, let’s add the Earth’s rotational angular velocity times the cosine of the satellite’s declination to the right ascension component of the satellite’s angular velocity.

The Earth turns through 360° in one mean sidereal day (23h 56m 04s = 86,164s).  That’s 1.8591° during the 0.1236 hours we observed the satellite.  Taking that times the average declination of the satellite during the observation time, we get 1.8591° cos 21.7783° =1.7264°.  Adding this to the 0.2743° the satellite moved in right ascension, we get new components for the satellite’s angular displacement of 0.2743° + 1.7264° = 2.0007° in right ascension and 0.0469° in declination.  This gives us the “true” angular displacement for the satellite of

This is a motion of about 16.19° per hour, giving us a rough orbital period of 22.235 hours or 80,045 seconds.

Using Newton’s form of Kepler’s Third Law to calculate the orbital semi-major axis, we get (as a very rough estimate):

where G is the gravitational constant, M is the mass of the Earth in kg, and P is the satellite’s orbital period in seconds.

Geosynchronous satellites have an orbital radius of 42,164 km, so our mystery satellite is almost as far out as the geosynchronous satellites.  If it were further, the satellite would have been moving westward across our field of view, not eastward.

Admittedly, this is a lot of hand waving and is almost certainly wrong, but perhaps it gets us reasonably close to the right answer.

Now, let’s consider the shadow of the Earth to give us another estimate of the satellite’s distance.

At the time of observation, the Sun was located at 19h04m23s -22°36’40”.  The anti-solar point, which is the center of the Earth’s shadow cone, was then located at 7h04m23s +22°36’40”.   That is only 18.1° from the satellite.  The Sun’s angular diameter at that time was 32.5 arcminutes.  In order for the satellite to not be shadowed by the Earth, the angular diameter of the Earth as seen from the satellite must be less thanThe distance from the center of the Earth at which the Earth subtends an angle of 18.6° is given bySo, using this method, the satellite must be at an orbital radius of at least 38,905 km to be outside the Earth’s umbral shadow cone.

Now, on to something less speculative: the varying brightness of the satellite.  I used Limovie to track the satellite across most of the field and got the following light curve.

At first blush, it appears the satellite is tumbling with a period of around 51.2s.  But a closer inspection reveals that a larger amplitude is followed by a smaller amplitude is followed by a larger amplitude, and so on.  So the tumbling period looks to me to be more like 102.4s.  The mean (unfiltered) magnitude of the satellite looks to be around 11.8m, but ranging between 10.7m and 13.0m.  Thus the amplitude is around 2.3 magnitudes.  You will find the raw data here.

Update January 10, 2018

Alain Figer, French astronomer and satellite enthusiast, was kind enough to identify this object for me.  Alain writes, “At first glance I noticed, using Calsky, that Falcon 9 rocket, 2017-025B, #42699, might be your satellite…From the MMT data (astroguard russian site) 2017-025B rotation period was measured at 89.55s on 13 OCT 2017.  That figure seems to me in rather good agreement with yours at 102.4s, since the rotation period of this rocket might be quickly lengthening, a rather classical behaviour for such newly launched rockets.”  Alain goes on to say, “For estimating the satellite altitude from your own observations you have to consider its highly eccentric elliptical orbit.”  Thank you, Alain!

After I got home from work this evening, I began thinking, “Hmm, Guide is such an amazing program, maybe it can show me accurate satellite positions as well.”  Turns out, it can!  After downloading the current orbital elements for all satellites and turning on the satellite display, I was able to confirm Alain’s determination that this object is indeed Falcon 9 rocket body 2017-025B.

SpaceX launched the Inmarsat-5 F4 commercial communications satellite from historic Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida using a Falcon 9 rocket on May 15, 2017.  Here are some pictures and a video of that launch.

The Falcon 9 rocket body currently orbits the Earth once every 23h21m19s in a highly-elliptical orbit (e=0.8358) that ranges from a perigee height of 432.4 km to an apogee height of 69,783 km.  During the time of observation, its range (i.e. distance from me, the observer) went from 64,388 km to 64,028 km.  The semi-major axis of its orbit is 41,481 km which is 3.3% higher than my (lucky) estimate above.  The shadow criterion of > 38,905 km is met as well.

Orbital inclination 25.6 degrees

Saturn V

Today we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the inaugural flight of Wernher von Braun’s magnum opus, the giant Saturn V moon rocket.  This first flight was an unmanned mission, Apollo 4, and took place less than 10 months after the tragic launch pad fire that killed astronauts Gus Grissom, 40, Ed White, 36, and Roger Chaffee, 31.

Apollo 4 launch, November 9, 1967

Apollo 4 image of Earth at an altitude of 7,300 miles

The unmanned Apollo 4 mission was a complete success, paving the way for astronauts to go to the Moon.  After another successful unmanned test flight (Apollo 6), the Saturn V rocket carried the first astronauts into space on the Apollo 8 mission in December 1968.  On that mission, astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders orbited the Moon for 20 hours and then returned safely to Earth.

Bill Anders took this iconic photo of Earth from Apollo 8 while in orbit around the Moon

“As of 2017, the Saturn V remains the tallest, heaviest, and most powerful (highest total impulse) rocket ever brought to operational status, and holds records for the heaviest payload launched and largest payload capacity to low Earth orbit (LEO) of 140,000 kg (310,000 lb), which included the third stage and unburned propellant needed to send the Apollo Command/Service Module and Lunar Module to the Moon.  To date, the Saturn V remains the only launch vehicle to launch missions to carry humans beyond low Earth orbit.”

Reference (for quoted material above)
Wikipedia contributors, “Saturn V,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Saturn_V&oldid=808028027 (accessed November 9, 2017).