Friday, January 28, 2011

Weekend SkyWatcher's Forecast: Lepus "the Hare"

Written by Tammy Plotner

Greetings, fellow SkyWatchers! With the late, late rise of the Moon this weekend would be a perfect opportunity to make the most of the constellation of Lepus. Are you ready to follow some wabbit twacks? Then let's go...

Created as one of Ptolemy’s original 48 constellations and positioned just south of the celestial equator, Lepus has endured the test of time to become one of the 88 modern constellation recognized by the IAU. Spanning 290 square degrees of sky, it ranks fifty-first in size and contains only 2 bright stars, yet has 8 stars in its major asterism. Within the confines of Lepus you will also find 20 stars with Bayer/Flamsteed designations. It is bordered by the constellations of Orion, Monoceros, Canis Major, Columba, Caelum and Eridanus. Lepus is visible to all observers at latitudes between +63° and ?90° and is best seen at culmination during the month of January.

In mythology, or perhaps more correctly story and legend, Lepus represents the hare at Orion the Hunter’s feet. It is believed the winged messenger god, Hermes honored the hare for its speed, giving it a place amongst the stars. It is also believed that Canis Major, Orion’s dog, forever pursues Lepus across the sky. The Egyptians saw this constellation as associated with Osiris and fertility… Of course, there is no more fertile creature than a rabbit!

Let’s start our binocular tour of Lepus with Alpha Leporis – the “a” symbol on our map. Its name is Arneb and it literally means “hare” in Arabic. Arneb is an older, dying star that may have already passed through a supergiant phase and is now contracting and heating up in the latter phases of stellar evolution, or perhaps is still expanding into the supergiant phase. With a mass of likely less than 10 times that of the Sun, it will likely end its life as a hot white dwarf, although if it is at the heavier end of its estimated mass it may end in a spectacular stellar explosion known as a supernova. Positioned about 1300 light years from Earth, Arneb may be dying… But it still has a few years of light left for you to enjoy!

Stay with binoculars and head south for Beta Leporis – the “B” symbol on our map. Beta’s proper name is Nihal – the “drinking camel”. Somewhat similar to our Sun, this unusual 159 light year distant dwarf star outshines Sol by 165 times. Why? Probably because it’s 16 times larger. Inside it has a rapidly evolving helium core and in less than a million years it will brighten as it begins to fuse its internal helium into carbon. Now take a look in a telescope. That’s right, Nihal is a binary star. About 2.5 seconds of arc away you’ll find a companion star that’s sometimes as bright as stellar magnitude 7 and sometimes as dim as 11. So what’s going on here? Chances are the companion star is an eclipsing double, much like an Algol-type. What’s more, the primary star – Nihal A – is also a bright X-ray source, which means it has strong stellar magnetic properties. According to research, it has a high content of yttrium and the rare earths praseodymium, neodymium, and samarium – chemicals that occurred because it began life just a little hotter than usual!

Now hop to Gamma Leporis – the “Y” shape on our chart. Gamma is a multiple star system which is about 29 light-years from Earth and consists of 2 or possibly 3 stars. What’s so cool about another multiple system? This one is on the move! Gamma is part of the Sirius Moving Group Of Stars. These stars are all about the same distance away and part of a larger collective of stars known as the Ursa Major Moving Group. Based upon its stellar characteristics and distance from Earth, Gamma Leporis, a main-sequence white-yellow dwarf star, is considered a high-priority target for NASA’s Terrestrial Planet Finder mission as well!

Point your binoculars or telescope at R Leporis – better known as “Hind’s Crimson Star”. Very few places in the sky will you find such ruby beauty! This well-known variable star is right on the border of Eridanus, but since the border doesn’t show on the sky, simply use bright Rigel to help you locate it. Named after famous British astronomer J.R. Hind, who observed it in 1845, you’ll find the most excellent carbon star varies from around magnitude 5 to 12 in about 427 to 432 days. In other words, you basically observe it from one year to the next! Hind’s Crimson star is the most beautiful when it is a minima, displaying an incredible smoky red color, which turns almost garnet as it brightens the following year. Enjoy this annual favorite!

Now keep those binoculars and telescopes handy as we drop a little less than four degrees south/southwest (a binocular field) of Beta and go for Messier 79 (RA 05:24.5 Dec -24:33). This 7th magnitude globular cluster was originally discovered by Pierre Mechain and later added to the Messier Catalog. Located about 40,000 light years from our solar system, the huge ball of stars spread across 118 light years of space an incorporates tens of thousands of distant suns. What’s unusual about it? Chances are, M79 is an import to our Milky Way Galaxy. From what we can tell through recent studies, this globular cluster may have actually belonged the the Canis Major dwarf galaxy at one time and became part of our galaxy through a galaxy collision! For double star fans, look another half degree southwest where you’ll see fifth magnitude ADS 3954 and its seventh magnitude companion. A nice same field bonus!

Have a grrrrrreat weekend!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Contributing Astrophotography - Storm on Saturn Has Grown Into A Monster!

Written By Tammy Plotner

Just before the holidays, UT reported about about the Growing Storm On Saturn and showed us the Cassini images. Now more than a month has passed and the white scar of the raging atmosphere has escalated to an incredible size... Nearly 10 Earths wide!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Press Release - Long Ago and Far, Far Away... Hubble Discovers Most Distant Galaxy Yet!

Written by Tammy Plotner

Hubble Ultra Deep Field Image - Part D

No Princess is sending holographic help messages. No Han Solo is warming up a Millenium Falcon to jump into hyperdrive. We don't even have a Death Star waiting around the corner. But, what we do have is evidence that astronomers have pushed the Hubble Space Telescope to its limits and have seen further back in time than ever before. “We are looking back through 96% of the life of the universe, and in so doing, we have found just one galaxy, but it is one, but it is a remarkable object. The universe was only 500 million years old at that time versus it now being thirteen thousand-seven hundred million years old. ” said Garth Illingworth, Ames Research Scientist. We know about the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, but we invite you to boldy go on...

While studying ultra-deep imaging data from the Hubble Space Telescope, an international group of astronomers have found what may be the most distant galaxy ever seen, about 13.2 billion light-years away. “Two years ago, a powerful new camera was put on Hubble, a camera which works in the infrared which we had never really good capability before, and we have now taken the deepest image of the universe ever using this camera in the infrared.” said Garth Illingworth, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “We’re getting back very close to the first galaxies, which we think formed around 200 to 300 million years after the Big Bang.” The study pushed the limits of Hubble’s capabilities, extending its reach back to about 480 million years after the Big Bang, when the universe was just 4 percent of its current age. The dim object, called UDFj-39546284, is a compact galaxy of blue stars that existed 480 million years after the Big Bang, only four percent of the universe's current age. It is tiny. Over one hundred such mini-galaxies would be needed to make up our Milky Way.

The farthest and one of the very earliest galaxies ever seen in the universe appears as a faint red blob in this ultra-deep–field exposure taken with NASA\'s Hubble Space Telescope. This is the deepest infrared image taken of the universe. Based on the object\'s color, astronomers believe it is 13.2 billion light-years away. (Credit: NASA, ESA, G. Illingworth (University of California, Santa Cruz), R. Bouwens (University of California, Santa Cruz, and Leiden University), and the HUDF09 Team)

Illingworth and UCSC astronomer Rychard Bouwens (now at Leiden University in the Netherlands) led the study, which will be published in the January 27 issue of Nature. Using infrared data gathered by Hubble’s Wide Field Planetary Camera 3 (WFC3), they were able to see dramatic changes in galaxies over a period from about 480 to 650 million years after the Big Bang. The rate of star birth in the universe increased by ten times during this 170-million-year period, Illingworth said. “This is an astonishing increase in such a short period, just 1 percent of the current age of the universe,” he said. There were also striking changes in the numbers of galaxies detected. “Our previous searches had found 47 galaxies at somewhat later times when the universe was about 650 million years old. However, we could only find one galaxy candidate just 170 million years earlier,” Illingworth said. “The universe was changing very quickly in a short amount of time.”

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field WFC3/IR Image. This Region of the Sky Contains the Deepest Optical and Near-Infrared Images Ever Taken of the Universe and is useful for finding star-forming galaxies at redshifts 8 and 10 (650 and 500 million years after the Big Bang, respectively). At UCSC and Leiden, we are using these data to better understand the properties of the first galaxies. Credit: Bouwen

According to Bouwens, these findings are consistent with the hierarchical picture of galaxy formation, in which galaxies grew and merged under the gravitational influence of dark matter. “We see a very rapid build-up of galaxies around this time,” he said. “For the first time now, we can make realistic statements about how the galaxy population changed during this period and provide meaningful constraints for models of galaxy formation.” Astronomers gauge the distance of an object from its redshift, a measure of how much the expansion of space has stretched the light from an object to longer (“redder”) wavelengths. The newly detected galaxy has a likely redshift value (“z”) of 10.3, which corresponds to an object that emitted the light we now see 13.2 billion years ago, just 480 million years after the birth of the universe. “This result is on the edge of our capabilities, but we spent months doing tests to confirm it, so we now feel pretty confident,” Illingworth said.

The galaxy, a faint smudge of starlight in the Hubble images, is tiny compared to the massive galaxies seen in the local universe. Our own Milky Way, for example, is more than 100 times larger. The researchers also described three other galaxies with redshifts greater than 8.3. The study involved a thorough search of data collected from deep imaging of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (HUDF), a small patch of sky about one-tenth the size of the Moon. During two four-day stretches in summer 2009 and summer 2010, Hubble focused on one tiny spot in the HUDF for a total exposure of 87 hours with the WFC3 infrared camera.

“NASA continues to reach for new heights, and this latest Hubble discovery will deepen our understanding of the universe and benefit generations to come,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, who was the pilot of the space shuttle mission that carried Hubble to orbit. “We could only dream when we launched Hubble more than 20 years ago that it would have the ability to make these types of groundbreaking discoveries and rewrite textbooks.”

To go beyond redshift 10, astronomers will have to wait for Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which NASA plans to launch later this decade. JWST will also be able to perform the spectroscopic measurements needed to confirm the reported galaxy at redshift 10. “It’s going to take JWST to do more work at higher redshifts. This study at least tells us that there are objects around at redshift 10 and that the first galaxies must have formed earlier than that,” Illingworth said.

“After 20 years of opening our eyes to the universe around us, Hubble continues to awe and surprise astronomers,” said Jon Morse, NASA’s Astrophysics Division director at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “It now offers a tantalizing look at the very edge of the known universe -- a frontier NASA strives to explore.” How far back will we go? If you sit around a campfire watching the embers climb skywards and discuss cosmology after an observing night with your astro friends, someone will ultimately bring up the topic of space/time curvature. If you put an X on a balloon and expand it - and trace round its expanse - you will eventually return to your mark. If we see our beginnings, will we also eventually see our end coming up over the horizon? Wow... Pass the marshmallows, please. We've got a lot to think about.

Reader Info: Illingworth’s team maintains the First Galaxies website, with information about the latest research on distant galaxies. In addition to Bouwens and Illingworth, the coauthors of the Nature paper include Ivo Labbe of Carnegie Observatories; Pascal Oesch of UCSC and the Institute for Astronomy in Zurich; Michele Trenti of the University of Colorado; Marcella Carollo of the Institute for Astronomy; Pieter van Dokkum of Yale University; Marijn Franx of Leiden University; Massimo Stiavelli and Larry Bradley of the Space Telescope Science Institute; and Valentino Gonzalez and Daniel Magee of UC Santa Cruz. This research was supported by NASA and the Swiss National Science Foundation. Hubble Ultra Deep Field Image and Video courtesy of NASA/STSci.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Weekend SkyWatcher's Forecast: And the Cradle Still Rocks...

Contributed by Tammy Plotner

Are you ready to observe? I mean really observe - not just take a glance and go on. If so, this weekend would be a great opportunity to try your hand at rocking the cradle!

When it comes to a stellar birthplace, there is no grander nor more often studied region of the night sky than the Great Orion Nebula. We've all seen it - be it through the most modest of binoculars to the most powerful of telescopes. We know it as one of the most famous of all star-forming regions - one frozen in our modest span of time - yet one that still hold a few surprises...

Acccording to the latest ESO Press Release, the Orion Nebula, also known as Messier 42, is one of the most easily recognisable and best-studied celestial objects. It is a huge complex of gas and dust where massive stars are forming and is the closest such region to the Earth. The glowing gas is so bright that it can be seen with the unaided eye and is a fascinating sight through a telescope. Despite its familiarity and closeness there is still much to learn about this stellar nursery. It was only in 2007, for instance, that the nebula was shown to be closer to us than previously thought: 1350 light-years, rather than about 1500 light-years.

Astronomers have used the Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile to observe the stars within Messier 42. They found that the faint red dwarfs in the star cluster associated with the glowing gas radiate much more light than had previously been thought, giving us further insights into this famous object and the stars that it hosts. The data collected for this science project, with no original intention to make a colour image, have now been reused to create the richly detailed picture of Messier 42 shown here.

The image is a composite of several exposures taken through a total of five different filters. Light that passed through a red filter as well as light from a filter that shows the glowing hydrogen gas, were coloured red. Light in the yellow–green part of the spectrum is coloured green, blue light is coloured blue and light that passed through an ultraviolet filter has been coloured purple. The exposure times were about 52 minutes through each filter. This image was processed by ESO using the observational data found by Igor Chekalin (Russia) [1], who participated in ESO’s Hidden Treasures 2010 astrophotography competition [2], organised by ESO in October–November 2010, for everyone who enjoys making beautiful images of the night sky using real astronomical data.

Although the Moon will greatly interfere with any observations of M42 if you wait until late, this weekend would be a wonderful time to get in some early observations. While cold weather in some areas might tempt you to make the most brief of looks, dress for success and really take your time to look at this incredible beauty. The more aperture you add, the more details you will see - such as thick tendrils of nebula embedded with jewel-like stars. For those will large telescopes, take the time to really power up to your theoretical limits and see just how many stars you can resolve in the Trapezium region! No matter what optics you choose, keep in mind what you have seen here, what we continue to discover and what it means...

Cuz' the cradle still rocks!

Original Source: ESO Press Release - Image Credit: Wide Field Imager/La Silla Observatory, Chile - Chart Credt: La Silla Observatory, Chile. We thank you so much!

Picture the Stars: The Great Hunter in the Sky

Contributed by R. D. Stephens

            I’ve always been fascinated with ancient mythologies; legends and folklore since I was young- well, younger than I am now anyway.  As an adult I’m often inwardly shocked at the enduring nature of these stories, names and images in times where things seem to have few enduring qualities.  These stories have remained in our daily language for thousands and thousands of years. 

             The time that I did spend in my childhood out under the stars of Little Blair Valley was spent hearing and wondering about these epic stories more often than with an eye to a telescope.  Hey, even the nerdy kids of the world have short attention spans!  Tales of demigods, vengeance, and love were more gripping at age 8 than M42. So I start my first post with the first constellation that I remember learning, Orion.  It’s safe to say it’s one of the most easily found constellations in the world thanks to his distinctive three-starred belt.  But there’s a lot more to this constellation than flashy accessories.

            Orion was a hunter of giant stature; the demigod son of Poseidon, god of the seas. Thanks to his father, he could walk on water and in his travels across the ocean he found himself on an island where he met with Artemis and, drunk, boasted that he was such a great hunter that he could kill every creature in the world.  Mother Earth objected and raised a mammoth scorpion, which killed Orion in a single strike.  Orion was well liked by the goddesses, and at their request Zeus raised Orion and the Scorpion to the heavens.   This, at least, was my favorite version of Orion’s legend.   There are several versions of this demigod’s life and death which connect Orion to several other constellations and stars.  He desperately pursued the 7 beautiful Pleiades.  Zeus grew tired of it and raised them all to the stars as punishment.  Canis Minor and Major are his faithful hunting dogs.  Another common story was that he was a great hunter and that Artemis loved him desperately.  Her jealous brother Apollo tricked her into putting an arrow through his head and he is commemorated in the heavens at her request.

            Orion’s showy appearance in the sky probably led the nearby star formations to be named in connection to his myths. Canis Minor and Major hover behind him, Orion chases the Pleiades across the sky, Taurus and Scorpio- Orion’s prey are always one step ahead of him.  In fact, Orion is such a central figure in the night sky that you can use him to find other objects! Follow the line of his belt to the southeast and you’ll land on Sirius- our brightest star and part of Canis Major, northwest and you’ll find Aldebaran which is a bright orange star starting the constellation Taurus.   Within Orion, Rigel at his left knee and Betelguese on his right shoulder, are two of the brightest stars in the night sky.  Follow a line from Rigel to Betelguese and you’ll come to Castor and Pollux, which create the constellation Gemini.  

            Orion is a bright beacon that can take you on a virtual journey through the constellations no matter where you might be in the world.  Take a little ‘walk’ through the night sky. If you’re new to the hobby, see what you can point out without your star chart or GoTo telescope controller handy and if you aren’t, take a moment to step back from the eyepiece and stare at the stars! 

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Welcome to the Official Blog for OPT Telescopes!

OPT at Night - Oceanside, CA
Contributed by Penny Distasio

There's a lot of stuff to read on the web these days, and lots of people, organizations, and companies compete for your time. Why should OPT Telescopes add ourselves to the mix? Because OPT is not your run-of-the-mill telescope retailer, that's for sure! I believe we can give you a fresh viewpoint on the multi-faceted hobby and science of astronomy.

Sure, we will certainly, from time to time, do a little advertising for the latest sale or event, but we also plan to post equipment reviews, comments on what's happening in the sky, short articles on observing, star parties, upcoming events around the world, and more, and we hope to do it with insight and humor.

Our blogging team consists of Tammy Plotner, Rayna Stephens, and moi...Penny Distasio, but we will also include guest articles by other members of the OPT team, especially when we need the last word on CCD equipment, imaging, and building that dream observatory!

Tammy is a popular author of several astronomy books and articles, and has done tons for the hobby in the form of outreach. You will enjoy her folksy writing style, but don't let that fool you! This lady knows her stuff, and she shares it in a way that you'll remember.

Rayna Stephens was born into astronomy! No, really. I rode a horse before I could walk, and I thought that was cool, but Rayna went to star parties. I can't say she stayed awake, but I think she soaked up understanding while out under the stars. Rayna is our youngest contributor, and I love that she has a voice here. Astronomy needs younger enthusiasts! Combine that appeal with a sharp wit, a free-for-all style, and 10 years of experience in the hobby, and I think you will agree that Rayna has something to say.

Finally, a little about me. I fell in love with being out under the stars with a telescope almost 25 years ago, the last time Halley's Comet graced the skies. I jumped in with two feet by becoming the "scribe" for OPT's astronomy club, OPTAS. I learned as I went, and before long I started selling telescopes at the store. That was a long time ago, and these days I help run our company website, but I still enjoy talking people through buying their first telescope when I get the chance. I have seen a lot of equipment come and go through the years, but the dream of having a telescope, and embarking on one's own relationship with the Universe...that never changes, and that is why I am still here.

Thanks for listening,

Penny @ OPT

Press Release - Solar Emissions Influence Climate Change

Written by Tammy Plotner

It's not often that I get a chance to voice my opinion on climate change without sounding like a tree-hugger or a total kook. However, in this circumstance I had an opportunity to read about some findings that hit home with my own personal thoughts and I figured you might like to know, too.

According to the latest American Astronomical Society Press Release, "Scientists have taken a major step toward accurately determining the amount of energy that the Sun provides to Earth, and how variations in that energy may contribute to climate change. In a new study of laboratory and satellite data, researchers report a lower value of that energy, known as total solar irradiance, than previously measured and demonstrate that the satellite instrument that made the measurement -- which has a new optical design and was calibrated in a new way -- has significantly improved the accuracy and consistency of such measurements. The new findings give confidence, the researchers say, that other, newer satellites expected to launch starting early this year will measure total solar irradiance with adequate repeatability -- and with little enough uncertainty -- to help resolve the long-standing question of how significant a contributor solar fluctuations are to the rising average global temperature of the planet.

“Improved accuracies and stabilities in the long-term total solar irradiance record mean improved estimates of the Sun’s influence on Earth’s climate,” said Greg Kopp of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) of the University of Colorado Boulder. Kopp, who led the study, and Judith Lean of the Naval Research Laboratory, in Washington, D.C., published their findings today in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union. The new work will help advance scientists’ ability to understand the contribution of natural versus anthropogenic causes of climate change, the scientists said. That’s because the research improves the accuracy of the continuous, 32-year record of total solar irradiance, or TSI. Energy from the Sun is the primary energy input driving Earth’s climate, which scientific consensus indicates has been warming since
the Industrial Revolution.

Lean specializes in the effects of the Sun on climate and space weather. She said, “Scientists estimating Earth’s climate sensitivities need accurate and stable solar irradiance records to know exactly how much warming to attribute to changes in the Sun’s output, versus anthropogenic or other natural forcings.” The new, lower TSI value was measured by the LASP-built Total Irradiance Monitor (TIM) instrument on the NASA Solar Radiation and Climate Experiment (SORCE) spacecraft. Tests at a new calibration facility at LASP verify the lower TSI value. The ground- based calibration facility enables scientists to validate their instruments under on-orbit conditions against a reference standard calibrated by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Before the development of the calibration facility, solar irradiance instruments would frequently return different measurements from each other, depending on their calibration. To maintain a long-term record of the Sun’s output through time, scientists had to rely on overlapping measurements that allowed them to intercalibrate among instruments.

Kopp said, “The calibration facility indicates that the TIM is producing the most accurate total solar irradiance results to date, providing a baseline value that allows us to make the entire 32-year record more accurate. This baseline value will also help ensure that we can maintain this important climate data record for years into the future, reducing the risks from a potential gap in spacecraft measurements.” Lean said, “We are eager to see how this lower irradiance value affects global climate models, which use various parameters to reproduce current climate: incoming solar radiation is a decisive factor. An improved and extended solar data record will make it easier for us to understand how fluctuations in the Sun’s energy output over time affect temperatures, and how Earth’s climate responds to radiative forcing.” Lean’s model, which is now adjusted to the new lower absolute TSI values, reproduces with high fidelity the TSI variations that TIM observes and indicates that solar irradiance levels during the recent prolonged solar minimum period were likely comparable to levels in past solar minima. Using this model, Lean estimates that solar variability produces about 0.1 degree Celsius (0.18 degree Fahrenheit) global warming during the 11-year solar cycle, but is likely not the main cause of global warming in the past three decades."

I think the new findngs are wonderful. For one, we really haven't been studying our weather with any great accuracy or scientific instruments for that long - only about 5 decades. For those of us who enjoy viewing sunspots, you also might have noticed that when sunspot activity is high, it really does seem to affect our weather - especially cloud cover. Global warming is real, and there is no doubt that mankind has contributed to it. However, take solar findings very much to heart because my opinion is that space weather plays a more important role in our climate than we could have ever dreamed possible.

Total Irradiance Monitor (TIM) photo courtesy of NASA.