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!

Moon and Meteors

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.”

Lunar Meteor Shower Peak Time Geometry (kindly provided by Peter Zimnikoval on March 8, 2019)

References
King, Bob (2019). A Space Rock Strikes Moon During the Total Lunar Eclipse. Sky & Telescope, January 23, 2019 blog. https://www.skyandtelescope.com/observing/a-space-rock-strikes-moon-during-the-total-lunar-eclipse/ .

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.

Total Lunar Eclipse 2019

We’ll be treated to a front-row seat for the total lunar eclipse this coming Sunday night and Monday morning, January 20/21, 2019! Here are the local circumstances for Dodgeville, Wisconsin.

Time (CST)EventAltitude
8:36:29 p.m.Penumbral Eclipse Begins40°
9:10 p.m.Penumbra first visible?46°
9:33:55 p.m.Partial Eclipse Begins50°
10:41:19 p.m.Total Eclipse Begins60°
11:12:18 p.m.Greatest Eclipse64°
11:43:18 p.m.Total Eclipse Ends66°
12:14:31 a.m.Moon crosses the celestial meridian67°
12:50:42 a.m.Partial Eclipse Ends66°
1:15 a.m.Penumbra last visible?64°
1:48:06 a.m.Penumbral Eclipse Ends60°

This is the first total lunar eclipse visible in its entirety from SW Wisconsin since September 28, 2015; the next such event won’t occur again until May 16, 2022. You’ll note in the table above, the Moon will be 64° above the horizon at mid-totality. The Moon has not been this high in our sky at mid-totality since November, 29, 1993 (66°), and it will not be this high again at mid-totality until January 21, 2048 (67°).

The first hint of shading will occur on the left (eastward-facing) edge of the Moon around 9:10 p.m. The first sliver of the full Moon enters the umbral shadow of the Earth at 9:33 p.m., so you’ll want to be watching by then. The entire Moon will be immersed in the umbral shadow of the Earth 67 minutes later at 10:41 p.m. This means that if you were anywhere on the nearside of the Moon you would see the dark Earth (except for city lights) completely covering the Sun, with a spectacular “ring of fire” all the way round the limb of the Earth refracting orangish-red light through our atmosphere—the combined light of all the world’s sunrises and sunsets at that moment.

This, of course, will continue as the Moon penetrates deeper into the umbral shadow of the Earth, reaching its closest to the center of the Earth’s shadow at mid-eclipse at 11:12 p.m.

The best place in the world to view this total lunar eclipse (assuming it is clear) will be Guantánamo Province in Cuba. Just 8 miles north of the municipality of El Salvador, Cuba, the Moon will be directly overhead at mid-eclipse.

There has been an unfortunate tendency of the mainstream media in recent years to use the term “Blood Moon” to describe a total lunar eclipse. Why must we use imagery so often associated with violence, death, and destruction in our discourse? The color of a total lunar eclipse depends upon the condition and transparency of the Earth’s atmosphere during the eclipse, and it can range from orange to coppery to red, and rarely even gray or brownish, so why not say orangish-red and leave it at that?

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.

Like Sun, Like Moon

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

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

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

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

Constellation

Description

Sun Travel Dates

Capricornus

Sea Goat

Jan 19 through Feb 16

Aquarius

Water Bearer

Feb 16 through Mar 12

Pisces

The Fish

Mar 12 through Apr 18

Aries

The Ram

Apr 18 through May 14

Taurus

The Bull

May 14 through Jun 21

Gemini

The Twins

Jun 21 through Jul 20

Cancer

The Crab

Jul 20 through Aug 10

Leo

The Lion

Aug 10 through Sep 16

Virgo

The Virgin

Sep 16 through Oct 31

Libra

The Scales

Oct 31 through Nov 23

Scorpius

The Scorpion

Nov 23 through Nov 29

Ophiuchus

Serpent Bearer

Nov 29 through Dec 18

Sagittarius

The Archer

Dec 18 through Jan 19

 

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

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

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

 

——— Moon’s Phase and Path ———

Date

Sun’s Path

New

FQ

Full

LQ

Mar 20

EQ

EQ

High

EQ

Low

Jun 21

High

High

EQ

Low

EQ

Sep 22

EQ

EQ

Low

EQ

High

Dec 21

Low

Low

EQ

High

EQ

 

New = New Moon

near the Sun

FQ = First Quarter

90° east of the Sun

Full = Full Moon

180°, opposite the Sun

LQ = Last Quarter

90° west of the Sun

 

EQ

= crosses the celestial equator heading north

High

= rides high (north) across the sky

EQ

= crosses the celestial equator heading south

Low

= rides low (south) across the sky

 

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

What is a Vacuum?

A vacuum is not nothing.    It is only a region of three-dimensional space that is entirely devoid of matter, entirely devoid of particles.

The best laboratory vacuum contains about 25 particles (molecules, atoms) per cubic centimeter (cm3).

The atmosphere on the surface of the Moon (if you can call it that) contains a lot more particles than the best laboratory vacuum: about 40,000 particles per cm3.  This extremely tenuous lunar atmosphere is mostly made up of the “noble” gases argon, helium, and neon.

The vacuum of interplanetary space contains about 11 particles per cm3.

The vacuum of interstellar space contains about 1 particle per cm3.

The vacuum of intergalactic space contains about 10-6 particles per cm3.  That’s just 10 particles per cubic meter of space.

But what if we could remove all of the particles in a parcel of space?  And somehow shield that empty parcel of space from any external electromagnetic fields?  What would we have then?

It appears that even completely empty space has some inherent energy associated with it.  The vacuum is constantly “seething” with electromagnetic waves of all possible wavelengths, popping into and out of existence on unimaginably short time scales—allowed by Heisenberg’s energy-time uncertainly principle.  These “quantum flourishes” may be a intrinsic property of space—as is dark energy.  Dark matter, on the other hand, is some weird form of matter that exists within space, exerting gravitational influence but not interacting with normal matter or electromagnetic waves in any other way.

Is there any evidence of this vacuum energy, or is it all theoretical?  There are at least three phenomena that point to the intrinsic energy of empty space.  (1) The Casimir effect; (2) Spontaneous emission; and (3) The Lamb shift.

The Casimir effect
Take two uncharged conductive plates and put them very close to each other, just a few nanometers apart.  Only the shortest wavelengths will be able to exist between the plates, but all wavelengths will exist on the other side of the two plates.  Under normal circumstances, this will cause a net force or pressure that pushes the two plates towards one another.

Spontaneous emission
An example of spontaneous emission is an electron transitioning from an excited state to the ground state, emitting a photon.  What causes this transition to occur when it does?

The Lamb shift
The Lamb shift is a tiny shift in the energy levels of electrons in hydrogen and other atoms that can’t be explained without considering the interaction of the atom with “empty” space.

References
Reucroft, S. and Swain, J., “What is the Casimir effect?”, Scientific American, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-is-the-casimir-effec/.  Accessed 20 Feb 2018.

Koks,D. and Gibbs, P., “What is the Casimir effect?”, http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/physics/Quantum/casimir.html.  Accessed 20 Feb 2018.

 

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).

Changing Solar Distance

Between January 2 and 5 each year, the Earth reaches orbital perihelion, its closest distance to the Sun (0.983 AU).  Between July 3 and 6 each year, the Earth reaches orbital aphelion, its farthest distance from the Sun (1.017 AU).  These dates of perihelion and aphelion slowly shift across the calendar (always a half year apart) with a period between 22,000 and 26,000 years.

These distances can be easily derived knowing the semi-major axis (a) and orbital eccentricity (e) of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, which are 1.000 and 0.017, respectively.

perihelion
q = a (1-e) = 1.000 (1-0.017) = 0.983 AU

aphelion
Q = a (1+e) = 1.000 (1+0.017) = 1.017 AU

So, the Earth is 0.034 AU closer to the Sun in early January than it is in early July.  This is about 5 million km or 3.1 million miles.

How great a distance is this, really?  The Moon in its orbit around the Earth is closer to the Sun around New Moon than it is around Full Moon.  Currently, this difference in distance ranges between 130,592 miles (April 2018) and 923,177 miles (October 2018).  Using the latter value, we see that the Moon’s maximum monthly range in distance from the Sun is 30% of the Earth’s range in distance from the Sun between perihelion and aphelion.

How about in terms of the diameter of the Sun?  The Sun’s diameter is 864,526 miles.  The Earth is just 3.6 Sun diameters closer to the Sun at perihelion than it is at aphelion.  Not much!  On average, the Earth is about 108 solar diameters distant from the Sun.

How about in terms of angular size?  When the Earth is at perihelion, the Sun exhibits an angular size of 29.7 arcminutes.  At aphelion, that angle is 28.7 arcminutes.

Can you see the difference?

In the Shadow of the Moon

Every once in a while a really great documentary comes along.  In the Shadow of the Moon is one of them. This 2007 British film, which like most documentaries (unfortunately), had a very limited theater engagement, is now widely available for rental or purchase.

It is the remarkable story of the Apollo missions to the Moon, told eloquently by many of the astronauts who journeyed there: Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins (Apollo 11), Alan Bean (Apollo 12), Jim Lovell (Apollo 8 & 13), Edgar Mitchell (Apollo 14), David Scott (Apollo 9 & 15), John Young (Apollo 10 & 16), Charles Duke (Apollo 16), Eugene Cernan (Apollo 10 & 17), and Harrison Schmitt (Apollo 17).  You certainly get the impression that not only are these guys personable and intelligent, but that they have aged well and still have much insight and wisdom to offer us about the past, present, and future.

The historical importance of this documentary cannot be overstated.  There is nothing, and I mean nothing, like hearing about the first (and still only) human missions to the Moon firsthand from the astronauts who journeyed there.  And, sadly, these pioneering astronauts are not going to be with us much longer. Most have already left us.  In the eleven years since this documentary was released, Edgar Mitchell, the last surviving member of the Apollo 14 crew, passed away in 2016, Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the Moon, passed away in 2017, John Young, the longest-serving astronaut in NASA history, and Alan Bean, the last surviving member of the Apollo 12 crew, left us in 2018.  The six surviving Apollo astronauts who shared their stories with us in this film are all octogenarians and nonagenarians: Buzz Aldrin is 88, Michael Collins is 87, Jim Lovell is 90, David Scott is 85, Charles Duke is 82, and Harrison Schmitt is 82.

This is a story that needed to be told by those who can tell it best.  There is no narrator, nor is there any need for one.  Kudos to directors David Sington & Christopher Riley, producers Duncan Copp, Christopher Riley, Sarah Kinsella, John Battsek, & Julie Goldman, and  composer Philip Sheppard for making this a film of lasting cultural significance, a film that will be admired and appreciated a hundred-plus years from now.

Bringing Home Pieces of the Moon

The astronauts on Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17 between 1969 and 1972 brought back a total of 840 lbs of moon rocks and soil.  Each successive Apollo mission brought back a larger amount of lunar material.

The Soviets brought back a total of 0.7 lbs of lunar soil through their robotic sample return missions Luna 16 (1970), Luna 20 (1972), and Luna 24 (1976).

So, excluding lunar meteorites that have befallen the Earth, a total of 840.7 lbs of lunar material has been delivered to research laboratories here on Earth.

It has been over 40 years since we have brought anything back from the lunar surface.  There are many interesting areas yet to be explored.  Why not send a series of robotic geologists to the Moon in advance of human missions? The success of the Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity rovers on Mars show us the exciting work that can be done at a fraction of the cost of human missions.  One enhancement would be the ability of the lunar robotic rovers to collect moon rocks and soil and return them to the mother ship for delivery to Earth.

But our 40+ year wait for additional lunar material may soon be over!

China plans to launch the Chang’e 5 lunar lander in November of this year.  It is expected to land in the Oceanus Procellarum (“Ocean of Storms”) region of the Moon, scoop up at least 4.4 lbs of lunar soil and rock—including some at least six feet below the surface!  The lunar haul will be launched into lunar orbit, where it will rendezvous with the sample return module that will bring it back to Earth.  After a high-speed entry into Earth’s atmosphere, the sample return module will rapidly decelerate, then gently parachute down to the Earth’s surface, presumably somewhere in China.

Chang’e 5 promises to be one of the most exciting and important space missions this year.  Stay tuned!