Edmund Weiss (1837-1917) and many astronomers since have called asteroids “vermin of the sky”, but on October 4, 1957 another “species” of sky vermin made its debut: artificial satellites. In the process of video recording stars for possible asteroid occultations, I frequently see satellites passing through my 17 × 11 arcminute field of view.
I’ve put together a video montage of satellites I serendipitously recorded between August 9, 2019 and December 22, 2019. Many of the satellite crossings are moving across the fields as “dashes” because of the longer integration times I need to use for some of my asteroid occultation work. A table of these events is shown below the video. The range is the distance between observer and satellite at the time of observation. North is up and east is to the left.
Satellites in higher orbits take longer to cross the field. In the next video, the originally geosynchronous satellite OPS 1570 (IMEWS-3, “Integrated Missile Early Warning System”) is barely visible until it exhibits an amazing sunglint around 3:41:22 UT.
I caught one meteor on October 6, 2019 at 9:57:43 UT. Field location was UCAC4 515-043597. The meteor was a Daytime Sextantid, as determined using the method I described previously in There’s a Meteor in My Image. The meteor even left a brief afterglow—a meteor train!
References Hughes, D. W. & Marsden, B. G. 2007, J. Astron. Hist. Heritage, 10, 21
The night of August 16, 2019 UT, I was hoping to be the first person to record an occultation of a star by the asteroid 10373 MacRobert, named after Sky & Telescope senior editor Alan MacRobert. Alas, it was not to be, but I did receive a celestial consolation prize (or is that a constellation prize?) just as rare: a meteor! Here it is:
In the caption above, you’ll note that I stated this was a Kappa Cygnid meteor. How did I determine that?
The first step is to determine the direction the meteor traveled through the image. Since I have an equatorially-mounted telescope, north is always up and east is to the left, just like in the real sky. Using Bill Gray’s remarkable Guide planetarium software, which I always use when imaging at the telescope, I identified two stars (and their coordinates) very close to the path of the meteor across the field. The meteor flashed through the field so quickly that I am not able to determine whether the meteor was traveling from NNE to SSW or vice versa. But since I was imaging in Sagittarius, south of all the radiants active on that date, it is most likely that the meteor was traveling NNE to SSW. But, of course, it could have been a sporadic meteor coming from any direction, though as you will see, I think I can convincingly rule out that scenario.
The two stars very close to the meteor’s path were:
Now, if this meteor came from a particular radiant, a great circle from the meteor shower radiant to either of the two stars (or the midpoint along the line connecting them) should be in the same direction as the direction between the two stars crossed by the meteor.
Meteor shower radiants drift from night to night as the Earth passes through the meteor stream due to its orbital motion around the Sun. We must find the radiant position for each meteor shower that was active on August 16, 2019 UT for that date.
Looking at Table 6, Radiant positions during the year in α and δ, on p. 25 of the International Meteor Organization’s 2019 Meteor Shower Calendar, edited by edited Jürgen Rendtel, we find that four major meteor showers were active on August 16: the Antihelion source, which is active throughout the year (ANT), the Kappa Cygnids (KCG), the Perseids (PER), and the South Delta Aquariids (SDA). Though right ascension and declination for these radiants (presumably epoch of date) are not given specifically for August 16, we can interpolate the values given for August 15 and 20. Note that the right ascensions are given in degrees rather than in traditional hours, minutes, and seconds of time.
We are now ready to plug all these numbers into a SAS program I wrote that should help us identify the likely source of the meteor in the image.
The results show us that the Kappa Cygnids are the likely source of the meteor in the image, with a radiant that is located towards the NNE (15.8˚) from the “pointer stars” in our image, at a bearing that is just 3.7˚ different from their orientation.
Edmund Weiss (1837-1917) and many astronomers since have called asteroids “vermin of the sky”, but on October 4, 1957 another “species” of sky vermin made its 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 serendipitously recorded between March 31, 2019 and July 12, 2019. Many of the satellite crossings are moving across the fields as “dashes” because of the longer integration times I need to use for some of my asteroid occultation work. A table of these events is shown below the video. The range is the distance between observer and satellite at the time of observation.
Satellites in higher orbits take longer to cross the field. When possible, I’ve included graphs of brightness as a function of time for these slower-moving satellites after each individual video and corresponding table. When you watch the videos of geostationary satellites, you are actually seeing the rotation of the Earth as the line between you and the satellite sweeps across the stars as the Earth rotates!
I caught one meteor on 4 Jan 2019 between 5:32:57 and 5:32:59 UT. Field location was UCAC4 419-017279. I’m pretty sure the meteor was a Quadrantid!
And two aircraft crossed my field: on 7 Dec 2018 1:40:05 – 1:40:13 UT (UCAC4 563-026131) and 26 Jun 2019 5:02:07 – 5:02:10 UT (UCAC4 291-144196).
And high energy particles (natural radioactivity or cosmic rays) “zing” my CCD/CMOS detector every once in a while. Here are a few examples: 5 Jan 2019 3:46:00 – 3:46:02 UT (UCAC4 473-001074); 20 Apr 2019 3:41:46 – 3:41:47 UT (UCAC4 501-062663); 30 Jun 2019 7:37:31 – 7:37:33 (UCAC4 354-179484) and 7:47:41 – 7:46:44 (TYC 6243-00130-1).
References Hughes, D. W. & Marsden, B. G. 2007, J. Astron. Hist. Heritage, 10, 21
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Galactic archaeology is the study of the oldest stars and other structures in our galaxy to better understand how our galaxy evolved.
Day 2 ended with an evening presentation of “Cielo”, a documentary film by Alison McAlpine. Highly recommended!
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
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:
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.
We would like to be able to predict solar eruptions before they happen.
Magnetic helicity is injected by surface motions.
It accumulates at polarity inversion lines.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Did you know that it is possible to observe a meteor shower when its radiant is below your horizon? When its radiant is too far south (or north, in the southern hemisphere) to ever rise above your horizon? When its radiant is even located near the Sun?
Yes you can! By video recording the Earth-facing night side of the Moon, or during a total or partial lunar eclipse, you have the opportunity to record meteors impacting the surface of the Moon. Those of us who record occultations of stars by asteroids and trans-Neptunian objects already have the equipment necessary to accurately document such events, which typically produce brief flashes of light lasting for a few hundredths of a second.
Leonid meteor lunar impact flashes of +3m to +8m were recorded in 1999 and 2001, and Geminid meteor lunar impact flashes have been recorded that were between +5m and +9m. Meteor impact events have also been recorded during lunar eclipses, such as just after the beginning of the total lunar eclipse of January 20/21, 2019.
Besides during lunar eclipses, the best time to look for meteor impact events on the Moon is when most of the Earth-facing side of the Moon is dark and illuminated only by earthshine. This occurs during the waxing crescent and waning crescent phases.
NASA has twin 14-inch telescopes that observe the nighttime part of the Moon between the phases of New and First Quarter, and between Last Quarter and New. These telescopes have recorded 435 flashes on the Moon from 2005 to April 2018.
On Mt. Kyllini (930 m), Corinthia, Greece, the 1.2 m Kryoneri telescope of the National Observatory of Athens has been employed in a four year project called NELIOTA (Near-Earth Object Lunar Impacts and Optical Transients) to monitor the Moon for lunar flashes using a two camera system (one R-band and one near-IR) at a video rate of 30 frames per second. All candidate flashes are compared against a database of artificial satellites to exclude false positives due to sunglints of satellites passing in front of the Moon. Between February 2017 and January 2019, forty lunar impact events have been detected.
Of course, you’re more likely to capture a lunar meteor impact flash during a major meteor shower.
Peter Zimnikoval in Slovakia has written a wonderful program called MetShow that will present your local circumstances for the Moon at any date and time and for any meteor shower radiant. I’ve reproduced in the gallery below the lunar circumstances for all the major meteor showers (ZHR ≥ 10) for the remainder of 2019.
Not only does the lunar phase have to be favorable, but the meteor shower radiant must be coming from a direction that will impact a nighttime part of the Moon that we can see. If the Moon is located near the radiant of a meteor shower, then most of the meteors will impact the far side of the Moon where they will be unobservable from Earth. If the Moon is located near 180˚ from the meteor shower radiant, then the meteors will favor the near side.
This year, the best meteor showers to monitor are the Eta Aquariids around May 6, the Delta Aquariids around July 30, and the Ursids around December 23.
Most meteor showers have a broad maximum, so the exact time to observe the Moon is not as important. But if the meteor shower has a sharp peak, then one should consider the time offset between the Earth and the Moon. Peter Zimnikoval writes (personal communication, 2019):
“Bombarding of the Moon’s surface is almost the same as on the Earth. The position of the observed radiant is given as the vector sum of the heliocentric motion of the meteoroids and the Earth’s motion. For the Moon, there is only a small difference due to its orbital velocity (1 km/s). Regular meteor showers cross the Earth’s orbit at the same point every year. The angular position of this point is described as solar longitude (J2000). The Moon at 3rd quarter reaches this point about 3.6 hours before the Earth (384,399 km / 29.78 km/s = 12,908 seconds = 3.6 hours). The Moon at 1st quarter reaches this point about 3.6 hours after the Earth.”
“For most of the regular meteor showers (Perseids, Orionids, Geminids) this time shift is not very important. Their maxima are not too sharp and the duration is many hours. The time shift may be important for very narrow meteor streams, where the suspected time of maximum is only a few hours and therefore observed from only a small part of the Earth. When the structure of a shower is very sharp, then small differences in the position of the Earth and the Moon passing through this stream can make a difference. At full moon or new moon, the Moon may reach a higher density of particles than the Earth, but these phases are not suitable for observation of lunar impact flares.”
Liakos, Alexios et al.(2019). NELIOTA Lunar Impact Flash Detection and Event Validation. Proceedings of the “ESA NEO and Debris Detection Conference -Exploiting Synergies-“, held in ESA/ESOC, Darmstadt, Germany, 22-24 January 2019. arXiv:1901.11414 [astro-ph.EP].
Zimnikoval, Peter (2017). Lunar impact flashes. WGN, Journal of the International Meteor Organization, 45:5.
Humans typically can hear sound waves in the range 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz. Frequencies below 20 Hz are called infrasound and frequences above 20 kHz are called ultrasound. The speed of sound in dry air at a temperature of 20˚ C (68˚ F) and an atmospheric pressure of 1 bar (slightly less than the average air pressure at sea level) is 343 m/s. Dividing the speed of sound by the frequency (in Hz) gives us the wavelength of the sound waves: 17 m (56 ft.) at 20 Hz, and 17 mm (0.67 in.) at 20 kHz.
Meteoroids enter the Earth’s atmosphere (thus becoming meteors) at hypersonic velocities, 35 to 270 times the local speed of sound (Mach 35 to Mach 270). Only a small portion of the total energy of the incoming meteoroid is transformed into visible light: most of the energy dissipated goes into acoustic shock waves. If the meteoroid is on the order of a centimeter (0.4 inches) or larger, infrasound waves are generated that can be detected on the ground, albeit after a delay of many seconds to minutes.
Infrasound waves can travel long distances, but higher frequencies are attenuated due to spreading losses and absorption over much shorter distances. There are many natural and man-made sources of infrasound waves, so identifying an incoming meteoroid as the source of the infrasound requires that we also “see” and record the meteoroid optically (the “meteor”), through radar, or VLF radio emissions from the meteoroid’s ionization trail in the Earth’s atmosphere. Ideally, all of these methods should be used at each observing station to best characterize the size and kinetic energy of each incoming meteoroid.
Infrasound detectors are not yet an off-the-shelf commodity. Chapparal Physics (http://chaparralphysics.com/) is one good source, but seeing as they do not list any prices you know the equipment will be expensive.
An infrasound detector is basically an extremely sensitive microphone that can detect tiny changes in air pressure. A peak sensitivity around 1 Hz is probably a good place to start for detecting meteors. Meteors large and/or energetic enough to be detected on the ground are rare, not even one a day for a given station, so automated recording will be necessary.
Finally, it is important to know that louder sounds that we cannot hear (infrasound and even ultrasound) can sometimes have adverse physical and psychological effects on humans. The cause can be as simple as a malfunctioning piece of mechanical or electrical equipment, or as nefarious as a sonic weapon. It would be advantageous to have a readily available and affordable infrasound and ultrasound detector to detect problem emissions.
For example, you might want an
Infrasound detector that maps 0.02 Hz – 20 Hz to the 20 Hz – 20 kHz audible range
Ultrasound detector that maps 20 kHz – 20 MHz to the 20 Hz – 20 kHz audible range
References Silber, Elizabeth A. (2018). Infrasound observations of bright meteors: the fundamentals. WGN, Journal of the International Meteor Organization, 46:2.
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
8-3-2018 8-23-2018 9-16-2018
10-21-2018 (2 satellites) 10-24-2018
Range & Direction 2,199.9 km SE unknown SE unknown SE 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.
Constellation & Direction
Here these meteors are presented in a video montage.
I even captured an airplane crossing the field on August 22, 2018 UT:
Hughes, D. W. & Marsden, B. G. 2007, J. Astron. Hist. Heritage, 10, 21
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.
Under the direction of Friedrich Argelander (1799-1875), astronomers at the Bonn Observatory spent seven years (1852 to 1859) measuring the positions and magnitudes of roughly 324,000 stars, one star at a time. This phenomenal work resulted in the Bonner Durchmusterung (BD) catalog and atlas, which included stars down to approximately magnitude 9.5 and is a tribute to the foresight of Argelander and the diligence of his small staff. The Bonner Durchmusterung was the last star catalog to be produced without the benefit of photography, and it is certainly the most comprehensive of the pre-photographic atlases.
Back in 2007, Alan MacRobert stated (Sky & Telescope, July 2007, p. 59), “Someday machines will measure the brightness of every star in the sky to some amazingly deep magnitude many times a night, and blind software will compile and analyze light curves automatically.” No doubt, he is correct, but he does add that this has not happened yet, despite years of pregnant expectations.
But we are getting closer to that day, with the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) scheduled to come online in 2022 and many other similar survey instruments in the pipeline or already operational. That is one reason as an amateur astronomer with limited resources (including time) I focus on observing the occultation of stars by asteroids and trans-Neptunian objects. It is one of the few areas where an amateur observational astronomer can provide location-dependent observations. You are either in the shadow path or you are not. Though truth be told I would rather be studying exoplanets, we can only do what we have the resources to do—regardless of talent or potential.
History is full of examples of skills and techniques made obsolete almost overnight by new technologies (or a different point of view), but what is seldom recorded is the sense of desolation and indeed mortality experienced by those unfortunate enough to live to see that their highly-developed skills are no longer wanted or needed. As my meteor-watching friend Paul Martsching has said, “It is good we don’t live forever: we are a product of our times.” He realizes full well that someday automated systems will count every meteor above the horizon far better and more completely than any visual meteor observer can, but for many years he has carefully recorded meteor activity many nights a year. The data he collects will always be relevant as part of the historical record, at least, and the sheer joy of being out under the stars and away from light pollution can never be replaced by a computer. To us, astronomy is something much deeper than what can be delivered through a computer screen.
We are a product of our times, and as we approach the twilight (or autumn) of our lives we don’t necessarily feel compelled to embrace every new thing that comes along. Peace.
From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: that we are here for the sake of each other—above all for those upon whose smile and well-being our own happiness depends, and also for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy. Many times a day I realize how much my own outer and inner life is built upon the labors of my fellow men, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received. – Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
I’ve been a meteor watching enthusiast since at least the early 1980s. I had the good fortune back then of getting to know Paul Martsching when we both lived in Ames, Iowa, and few people in the world have logged more hours in the name of meteor science than he. We have been close friends ever since.
We’ve learned that here in the U.S. Midwest, for any given astronomical event you wish to observe, there is between a 2/3 and 3/4 chance that it will be clouded out—unless you are willing to travel. Weather forecasting has gotten much better over the years, and nowadays you can vastly improve your chances of not missing that important astronomical event, such as the Perseid meteor shower in August or the Geminid meteor shower in December.
Paul and I have traveled from Ames, Iowa to Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Kansas, Missouri, and Illinois over the years to escape cloudy skies. Just last year, we had to travel to north of Jamestown, North Dakota to see the Perseids, and this year it appears we will need to travel to southern Kansas, Oklahoma, or Arkansas to get a clear view of the Geminids.
Weather forecasts don’t begin to get really accurate until about 48 hours out, so we often have to decide at nearly the last minute where to travel. Therein lies the problem. Where can we find a safe observing spot to put down our lawn chairs where there are no terrestrial lights visible brighter than the brightest stars, and no objectionable skyglow from sources or cities over the horizon? It is a tall challenge.
What we need to develop is a nationwide network of folks who know of good places to watch meteors. This would include astronomy clubs, individual astronomy enthusiasts, managers of parks and other natural areas, rural land owners who would allow meteor watchers on their land, rural B&Bs, cabins, lodges, ranches, and so on. Once you know where you need to go to get out from under the clouds, there would be someone you could call in that area of the country to make expeditious observing arrangements for that night or the following night. And perhaps lodging as well, if available.
If you would like to work with me to build a meteor watcher’s network or have ideas to share, please post comments here or contact me directly.