On 20 Oct 2021 UT, I observed the star TYC 724-273-1 in the constellation Orion being covered up by the asteroid 444 Gyptis. The star disappeared at 5:31:53.856 UT and reappeared at 5:32:10.506, a duration of 16.65 seconds.
The published apparent visual magnitude of this star is 11.5 and the published apparent visual magnitude of 444 Gyptis at the time of the event is 12.5.
The combined magnitude (mc) of star + asteroid just before (and after) the occultation event is given by
where mo is the magnitude of the asteroid and m* is the magnitude of the star
This gives us a combined magnitude of 11.14 just before the occultation.
While the asteroid is covering up the star, you should only see the asteroid, so the magnitude should decrease from 11.14 to 12.5, a magnitude drop of 1.36 magnitudes.
Much to my surprise, I observed a magnitude drop of only 0.54.
Is it possible that 444 Gyptis only covered up one component of a previously undiscovered double star? That idea is bolstered by the fact that the event occurred 14.8 seconds earlier than predicted, a full 3.7σ early.
Entertaining the double-star idea, our task is to determine the magnitudes of the two blended stars and which one got covered up. Let us call the magnitudes of the two components m*1 and m*2, with m*1 being the component that got covered. We already know that m*1 + m*2 must equal m* = 11.5. We also know that the observed magnitude drop of the m*1 plus the unobserved magnitude drop that the m*2 star would have had must equal the expected magnitude drop of 1.36. This gives us enough information to calculate m*1 and m*2 individually.
where mo is the magnitude of the asteroid and m* is the magnitude of the star and mc is the magnitude of the star + asteroid and m*1 is the magnitude of the occulted star component and m*2 is the magnitude of the unocculted star component and Δmobs is the observed magnitude drop
This gives us a magnitude of 12.36 for the occulted component and 12.15 for the unocculted component. Thus we can see that I observed the fainter component of the double star being occulted by asteroid 444 Gyptis.
Finally, we can do an extra check to make sure that the magnitudes of the two star components plus the asteroid equals the combined magnitude of 11.14 we expected right before the occultation occurred.
Here’s a little SAS program I wrote to do the calculations.
format mstar mastr mcomb pdelm odelm mstr1 mstr2 mtot 5.2;
mstar = 11.5;
mastr = 12.5;
odelm = 0.54;
x = 0.4*(mastr - mstar);
mcomb = mastr - 2.5*log10(10**x + 1);
pdelm = mastr - mcomb;
mstr1 = log10(10**((mcomb+odelm)/-2.5) - 10**(-0.4*mastr))/-0.4;
mstr2 = log10(10**(mstar/-2.5) - 10**(-0.4*mstr1))/-0.4;
mtot = -2.5*log10(10**(-0.4*mstr1)+10**(-0.4*mstr2)+10**(-0.4*mastr));
put 'Published Magnitude of Occulted Star = ' mstar;
put 'Magnitude of Asteroid = ' mastr;
put 'Combined Magnitude Right Before Occultation = ' mcomb;
put 'Predicted Magnitude Drop = ' pdelm;
put 'Observed Magnitude Drop = ' odelm;
if (odelm/pdelm > 0.5 and mstr1 > mstr2) or
(odelm/pdelm < 0.5 and mstr1 < mstr2) then do;
put 'Magnitude of Star Component Occulted = ' mstr2;
put 'Magnitude of Star Component Not Occulted = ' mstr1;
put 'Magnitude of Star Component Occulted = ' mstr1;
put 'Magnitude of Star Component Not Occulted = ' mstr2;
put 'Total Magnitude of Both Star Components + Asteroid = ' mtot;
Published Magnitude of Occulted Star = 11.50
Magnitude of Asteroid = 12.50
Combined Magnitude Right Before Occultation = 11.14
Predicted Magnitude Drop = 1.36
Observed Magnitude Drop = 0.54
Magnitude of Star Component Occulted = 12.36
Magnitude of Star Component Not Occulted = 12.15
Total Magnitude of Both Star Components + Asteroid = 11.14
I retired from my full-time position on May 21, and am now working three hours a day, Monday through Friday, for the same company, 100% remote. It is intense work, but at least it is only 15 hours per week now, and the pay is good.
There are a lot of potential projects that present themselves for an encore career, but I’m finding that I live in the wrong place to do any of them. Some are going to be impossible to do without substantial help from others.
One thing I’ve learned, especially during the pandemic, is that I need to be with people in the work that I do. A 100% remote interaction with others is unsatisfying, and I certainly don’t want to spend the rest of my life doing that.
The project I am most excited about is Mirador Astronomy Village. Nothing like it has ever been done in the United States before.
Mirador would be a residential community that is astronomy-friendly, and the majority of that residential community would be permanent residents (in other words, not vacation homes for the wealthier among us). Mirador would have no dusk-to-dawn lighting, and no one living there will ever have to worry about a neighbor putting up a light that trashes their view of the night sky or shines into their home. Mirador would have a public observatory and provide regular astronomy programs. Mirador would also have private observatories for research, astrophotography, and visual observing.
Ideally, Mirador would be located where it is clear most nights and winters are mild. New Mexico, Arizona, and West Texas immediately come to mind.
The challenges? Mirador is going to need a land donation and a group of people who can take some financial risk to build it without jeopardizing their personal economic stability. Astronomy is such an important part of my life that I am willing to move, even to a remote location, for the opportunity to live in an intentional community of astronomers and astronomy enthusiasts. What I don’t know is whether there are even 20 others in the entire United States who would make the move for such an opportunity. Running a classified ad in Sky & Telescope for a year accomplished nothing other than “great idea, let me know when you get it built.” Well, even though I have passion, knowledge, and leadership skills to make this project a success, I do not have financial resources beyond providing for myself and my family. I can’t personally fund a development.
Many other projects and activities interest me. None of them can I do in Dodgeville, Wisconsin.
Provide astronomy programs at a public observatory
Volunteer at a classical music radio station, perhaps even hosting my own classical music program, or at least providing recordings and commentary
Volunteer for a symphony orchestra
Bring the best music of new and neglected classical composers to a wider audience
Paved off-road bicycle path
Develop a comprehensive outdoor lighting code/ordinance that has support, will get enacted, and will be enforced
One current activity related to classical music is necessarily 100% virtual. Back in April, I created a groups.io discussion group called Classical Music Little-Known Favorites. I posted a note about it to the hundreds of people I am connected to on LinkedIn and Facebook, and that garnered only a single subscriber. Since then, I’ve been working diligently to find interesting and accessible classical music to feature. I am pleased with the results so far, only no one else is posting anything. Still only one subscriber besides myself. There must be at least 20 people in the entire world who have a passion to seek out and champion the best classical music that is not yet commercially available. How do I reach them?
Currently, my astronomical work is focused on stellar occultations by minor planets for IOTA. I spend about 20 hours per week running predictions, recording the events from my backyard observatory, analyzing the data, and reporting the results. My backyard observatory is wholly dedicated to this work. Wherever I end up living, I would like to continue these observations. This adds the complication that I will need access to a dedicated observatory for occultation work—either my own or one that I share with other occultation enthusiasts. That observatory should be within walking distance of where I live.
I would like to live closer to my daughter and her family in Alpine, TX. Even though I would prefer to live somewhere not too far from civilization (thinking quality health care, mostly) with a unpolluted night sky, I am beginning to consider moving to a larger city like Tucson or Las Cruces where I can better pursue my classical music interests in addition to astronomy. Tucson has direct Amtrak access to Alpine (a huge plus), but Las Cruces has no connection to Amtrak. The Sunset Limited needs to come to Las Cruces (between the El Paso and Deming stops), or at least there needs to be a bus that takes you directly to and from the train station in El Paso.
I am concerned about the direction this country is heading, and that is entering into my future plans, too. I am a non-religious progressive who believes that local, state, and federal government should be strong, competent, and efficient. There can be no higher calling than a life dedicated towards public service. I am pro-government, pro-tax, pro-education, pro-science, and anti-gun. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere where Trump got the majority of the vote in 2020. If the current Republican insanity continues (and they have most of the guns), we progressives may be forced to consider forming our own country. Or moving out of this one. Before things get any uglier. Living in an enlightened and compassionate society requires giving up some of your liberty and freedoms for the health and well being of everyone. That’s a given.
We are so very fortunate here in southern Wisconsin to have evening public lectures the 2nd Tuesday every month of the year at the University of Wisconsin Space Place, expertly organized by Jim Lattis. On Tuesday, November 12th, Clif Cavanaugh (retired physics and astronomy professor at the UW in Richland Center) and I made the trek (as we often do) from Spring Green-Dodgeville to the Space Place in Madison. This month, we were treated to an excellent presentation by Keith Bechtol, an Observational Cosmologist in the Physics Department at UW-Madison. His topic was The Big Picture: Science with Astronomical Surveys. Keith is an early career scientist with a bright future. His presentation was outstanding.
I’d like to share with you some of the highlights.
Before the talk, which is mostly about the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), currently under construction in Chile and expected to see first light in 2020, I asked Keith about whether LSST would be renamed the Vera Rubin Telescope as was announced at AAS 234 in St. Louis this past summer. As it turns out, Keith has been a vocal advocate for naming LSST after Vera Rubin, though no final decision has yet been made.
Before I get into notes from the talk, I wanted to share with you the definition of the word synoptic in case you are not familiar with that word. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word synoptic as “furnishing a general view of some subject; spec. depicting or dealing with weather conditions over a large area at the same point in time.” But rather than the traditional meteorological definition, here we are referring to a wide-field survey of the entire night sky visible from Cerro Pachón in Chile, latitude 30˚ S.
Keith first talked about how astronomical imaging is currently advancing along two fronts. The first is high-resolution imaging, as recently illustrated with first image of the event horizon of a black hole from the Event Horizon Telescope, where an amazing resolution of around 25 microarcseconds was achieved.
In general, the larger the telescope aperture, the smaller the field of view.
A survey telescope, on the other hand, must be designed to cover a much larger area of the sky for each image.
Not only can a survey telescope detect “anything that changes” in the night sky, but it also allows us to probe the large-scale structure of our universe. Three still-mysterious entities that are known to affect this large-scale structure are dark energy, dark matter, and neutrinos. Keith indicates that “these names are placeholders for physics we don’t yet fully understand.”
Dark energy, which is responsible for driving galaxies apart at an accelerating rate, is unusual in that it maintains a constant density as the universe expands. And its density is very low.
Supernovae are a very useful tool to probe the dark-energy-induced accelerating expansion of the universe, but in any particular galaxy they are exceedingly rare, so by monitoring large areas of the sky (ideally, the entire sky), we can discover supernovae frequently.
The mass distribution of our universe subtly affects the alignment and shapes of distant galaxies through a phenomenon known as weak gravitational lensing. Understanding these distortions and correlations requires a statistical approach looking at many galaxies across large swaths of sky.
Closer to home, small galaxies that have come too close our Milky Way galaxy are pulled apart into stellar streams that require a “big picture” approach to discover and map. The dark matter distribution in our Milky Way galaxy plays an important role in shaping these stellar streams—our galaxy contains about ten times as much dark matter as normal matter.
With wide-field surveys, not only do we need to cover large areas of sky, but we also want to be able to see the faintest and most distant objects. That latter property is referred to as “going deeper”.
The LSST will provide a dramatic increase in light gathering power over previous survey instruments. The total number of photons collected by a survey instrument per unit time is known as the étendue, a French word, and it is the field of view (in square degrees) × the effective aperture (in m2) × the quantum efficiency (unitless fraction). The units of étendue are thus m2deg2. Note that the vertical axis in the graph below is logarithmic, so the LSST will have a significantly higher étendue than previous survey instruments.
The largest monolithic mirrors in the world are fabricated at the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab at the University of Arizona in Tucson. The largest mirrors that can be produced there are 8.4 meters, and LSST has one of them.
Remember the Yerkes Observatory 40-inch refractor, completed in 1897? It has held the record as the largest lens ever used in an astronomical telescope. Until now. A 61.8-inch lens (L-1) and a 47.2-inch (L-2) have been fabricated for use in the LSST camera.
LSST will utilize a camera that is about the size of a car. It is the largest camera ever built for astronomy.
The LSST camera will produce 3.2 gigapixel images. You would need to cover about half a basketball court with 4K TV screens to display the image at full resolution.
An image will be produced every 15 seconds throughout the night, every clear night, and each patch of sky will be reimaged every three nights. That is a HUGE amount of data! ~10 Tb of data each night. Fiber optical cable will transport the data from Cerro Pachón to the National Center for Supercomputing Applications in Urbana, Illinois, where it will be prepared for immediate use and made publicly available to any interested researcher. The amount of data is so large that no one will be downloading raw data to their local computer. They will instead be logging in to the supercomputer and all processing of the data will be done there, using open source software packages.
There are many data processing challenges with LSST data needing to be solved. Airplane, satellite, and meteor trails will need to be carefully removed. Many images will be so densely packed with overlapping objects that special care will be needed separating the various objects.
One LSST slide that Keith presented showed “Solar System Objects: ~ 6 million” and that piqued my interest, given my ongoing research program of observing stellar occultations by asteroids and trans-Neptunian objects for IOTA. Currently, if you endeavor to observe the highest probability occultation events from a fixed observatory location each night, you will be lucky to record one positive event for every ten negative events (no occultation). The reason for this is that our knowledge of the orbital elements of the small bodies of the solar system is not yet precise enough to accurately predict where stellar occultation events will occur. Gaia DR3, scheduled for the latter half of 2021, should significantly improve the precision of small body orbits, and even though LSST does not have nearly the astrometric precision of Gaia, it will provide many valuable astrometric data points over time that can be used to refine orbital elements. Moreover, it is expected that LSST will discover—with its much larger aperture than Gaia—at least 10 times the number of asteroids and trans-Neptunian objects that are currently known.
During the question and answer period after the lecture, I asked Keith what effect the gigantic increase in the number of satellites in Earth orbit will have on LSST operations (global broadband internet services provided by organizations like SpaceX with its Starlink constellation). He stated that this definitely presents a data processing challenge that they are still working on.
An earlier version of Keith’s presentation can be found here. All images in this article except the first (OED) come from Keith’s presentation and have not been altered in any way.
Bechtol, Keith, “The Big Picture: Science with Astronomical Surveys” (lecture, University of Wisconsin Space Place, Madison, November 12, 2019).
Bechtol, Ellen & Keith, “The Big Picture: Science and Public Outreach with Astronomical Surveys” (lecture, Wednesday Night at the Lab, University of Wisconsin, Madison, April 17, 2019; University Place, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, PBS Wisconsin).
Jones, R. L., Jurić, M., & Ivezić, Ž. 2016, in IAU Symposium, Vol. 318, Asteroids: New Observations, New Models, ed. S. R. Chesley, A. Morbidelli, R. Jedicke, & D. Farnocchia, 282–292. https://arxiv.org/abs/1511.03199 .
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!
Finally, a turnkey system is available for recording stellar occultations by asteroids and trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs)! All you need besides the kit is a telescope and a PC. A big thank you to Ted Blank and IOTA for putting this together!
Occultation Recording Kit
Highly sensitive RunCam Night Eagle Astro Edition video camera
0.5x focal reducer & adapters to attach camera to 1¼-inch eyepiece holder
We need more observers in the Midwest (everywhere, really) to give us more chords across the asteroids and TNOs, thus increasing the scientific value of the observations. Right now, we are desperately in need of observers in Iowa (where I lived for many years and will always be home to me), and we have precious few active observers in Wisconsin (yours truly), Minnesota (Steve Messner), and Illinois (Bob Dunford, Aart Olsen, Randy Trank).
If you have an interest in pursuing this interesting and rewarding speciality that gives you the opportunity to make a valuable scientific contribution, feel free to post a comment here and I’ll be happy to help!
Planetary orbits are randomly oriented throughout our galaxy. The probability that an exoplanet’s orbit will be fortuitously aligned to allow that exoplanet to transit across the face of its parent star depends upon the radius of the star, the radius of the planet, and the distance of the planet from the star. In general, planets orbiting close-in are more likely to be seen transiting their star then planets orbiting further out.
The equation for the probability of observing a exoplanet transit event is
where ptra is the transit probability, R* is the radius of the star, Rp is the radius of the planet, a is the semi-major axis of the planetary orbit, and e is the eccentricity of the planetary orbit
Utilizing the data in the NASA Exoplanet Archive for the 1,463 confirmed exoplanets where the above data is available (and assuming e = 0 when eccentricity is unavailable), we find that the median exoplanet transit probability is 0.0542. This means that, on average, 1 out of every 18 planetary systems will be favorably aligned to allow us to observe transits. However, keep in mind that our present sample of exoplanets is heavily biased towards large exoplanets orbiting close to their parent star. Considering a hypothetical sample of Earth-sized planets orbiting 1 AU from a Sun-sized star, the transit probability drops to 0.00469, which means that we would be able to detect only about 1 out of every 213 Earth-Sun analogs using the transit method.
How might we detect some of the other 99.5%? My admired colleague in England, Abdul Ahad, has written a paper about his intriguing idea: “Detecting Habitable Exoplanets During Asteroidal Occultations”. Abdul’s idea in a nutshell is to image the immediate environment around nearby stars while they are being occulted by asteroids or trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs) in order to detect planets orbiting around them. While there are many challenges (infrequency of observable events, narrow shadow path on the Earth’s surface, necessarily short exposure times, and extremely faint planetary magnitudes), I believe that his idea has merit and will one day soon be used to discover and characterize exoplanets orbiting nearby stars.
Ahad notes that the apparent visual magnitude of any given exoplanet will be directly proportional to the apparent visual magnitude of its parent star, since exoplanets shine by reflected light. Not only that, Earth-sized and Earth-like planets orbiting in the habitable zone of any star would shine by reflected light of the same intrinsic brightness, regardless of the brightness of the parent star. He also notes that the nearer the star is to us, the greater will be a given exoplanet’s angular distance from the occulted star. Thus, given both of these considerations (bright parent star + nearby parent star = increased likelihood of detection), nearby bright stars such as Alpha Centauri A & B, Sirius A, Procyon A, Altair, Vega, and Fomalhaut offer the best chance of exoplanet detection using this technique.
Since an exoplanet will be easiest to detect when it is at its greatest angular distance from its parent star, we will be seeing only about 50% of its total reflected light. An Earth analog orbiting Alpha Centauri A would thus shine at visual magnitude +23.7 at 0.94″ angular distance, and for Alpha Centauri B the values would be +24.9 and 0.55″.
Other considerations include the advantage of an extremely faint occulting solar system object (making it easier to detect faint exoplanets during the occultation event), and the signal boost offered by observing in the infrared, since exoplanets will be brightest at these wavelengths.
A distant (and therefore slow-moving) TNO would be ideal, but the angular size of the TNO needs to be larger than the angular size of the occulted star. However, slow-moving objects mean that occultation events will be rare.
The best chance of making this a usable technique for exoplanet discovery would be a space-based observatory that could be positioned at the center of the predicted shadow and would be able to move along with the shadow to increase exposure times (Ahad, personal communication). It would be an interesting challenge in orbital mechanics to design the optimal base orbit for such a spacecraft. The spacecraft orbit would be adjusted to match the position and velocity of the occultation shadow for each event using an ion drive or some other electric propulsion system.
One final thought on the imaging necessary to detect exoplanets using this technique. With a traditional CCD you would need to begin and end the exoplanet imaging exposure(s) only while the parent star is being occulted. This would not be easy to do, and would require two telescopes – one for the occultation event detection and one for the exoplanet imaging. A better approach would be to use a Geiger-mode avalanche photodiode (APD). Here’s a description of the device captured in 2016 on the MIT Lincoln Labs Advanced Imager Technology website:
A Geiger-mode avalanche photodiode (APD), on the other hand, can be used to build an all-digital pixel in which the arrival of each photon triggers a discrete electrical pulse. The photons are counted digitally within the pixel circuit, and the readout process is therefore noise-free. At low light levels, there is still noise in the image because photons arrive at random times so that the number of photon detection events during an exposure time has statistical variation. This noise is known as shot noise. One advantage of a pixel that can digitally count photons is that if shot noise is the only noise source, the image quality will be the best allowed by the laws of physics. Another advantage of an array of photon counting pixels is that, because of its noiseless readout, there is no penalty associated with reading the imager out frequently. If one reads out a thousand 1-ms exposures of a static scene and digitally adds them, one gets the same image quality as a single 1-s exposure. This would not be the case with a conventional imager that adds noise each time it is read out.
References Ahad, A., “Detecting Habitable Exoplanets During Asteroidal Occultations”, International Journal of Scientific and Innovative Mathematical Research, Vol. 6(9), 25-30 (2018). MIT Lincoln Labs, Advanced Imager Technology, https://www.ll.mit.edu/mission/electronics/ait/single-photon-sensitive-imagers/passive-photon-counting.html. Retrieved March 17, 2016. NASA Exoplanet Archive https://exoplanetarchive.ipac.caltech.edu. Winn, J.N., “Exoplanet Transits and Occultations,” in Exoplanets, ed. Seager, S., University of Arizona Press, Tucson (2011).
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)
Many times each week, all manner of asteroids and trans-Neptunian objects pass in front of stars, casting shadows a few miles wide all over the Earth. There are several potential events each week at any particular location. I use the word “potential” because there is still significant uncertainty in the paths for many of these events. The orbits of most small solar system objects are not yet precisely known, and, to a lesser extent, there is some uncertainty in the position of the occulted (obscured) star.
On Sunday evening, November 20, I got lucky. Not only did I record a 1.02 second occultation event, but I was lucky to see it at all as I was significantly south of the predicted path.
The star affected was Tycho 5182-758-1 (also known as BD -3° 5037) in Aquarius and the object that moved in front of it was the asteroid 430 Hybris, a space rock about 20 miles across that orbits once around the Sun every 4.8 years. Many asteroids have interesting names, and Hybris is no exception. In Greek mythology, Hybris is a spirit of insolence, violence, and outrageous behavior. It is also an alternative form of the word hubris. All quite appropriate given the outcome of the U.S. presidential election less than two weeks earlier.
And here is the light curve I derived from the video which clearly shows the event:
Steve Messner (near Northfield, Minnesota) and I were the only ones to observe this event. It was a miss for Steve, and he was much closer to the predicted path!
Why do we do it? Even a single positive observation can greatly improve our knowledge of the orbit of the asteroid or trans-Neptunian object. More than one positive observation gives us valuable information about its size and shape. We can discover asteroid/TNO satellites and even rings! But that’s not all. These occultation events can also give us valuable information about the star. Its size, position, and the separation and position angle of new or known companion stars. Someday, we may even be able to use these events to discover exoplanets!
If you love observational astronomy and would like to contribute scientifically valuable observations by observing occultation events, contact me and I will help you get started. The more observers we have, the more valuable our scientific contribution will be.