Welcome to the night sky report for December 2020 -- Your guide to the constellations, deep sky objects, planets, and celestial events that are observable during the month. Step outside on a cold December night when the stars shine bright to find the Big Dipper, Cassiopeia, and Cepheus. They will help you locate a binary star system, a fan-shaped open star cluster, and a variable star. Also this month, catch the Geminids meteor shower. Then see Jupiter and Saturn come together in a conjunction to form a "double planet." Just after sunset on the evening of December 21st, Jupiter and Saturn will appear closer together in Earth’s night sky than they have since the year 1226 -- That’s 800 years ago during the Middle Ages. Is this like the Star of Bethlehem? No, not really -- I realize it is just two planets coming together in the sky (not a star), it’s pointing west instead of east, and it is a few days early for Christmas, but I couldn’t resist making the connection, so work with me here. (Interesting side fact, some have speculated that the true Star of Bethlehem could have been the conjunction of Jupiter and Venus near the bright star Regulus that occurred in the year 2 BC). The night sky is truly a celestial showcase. Get outside and explore its wonders from your own backyard.
Galaxy NGC 1052-DF4 is very unusual in that it is missing almost all of its dark matter. Recently acquired data from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope provides evidence for tidal disruption in this galaxy and this new result is being used to explain why this galaxy is missing most of its dark matter. But is it possible that dark matter simply does not exist? History provides us with many examples where scientists have invented ideas out of thin air to help explain away things that are just not understood. In some ways, dark matter (and dark energy) bring to mind another imaginary concept -- the so called "Aether Wind" of the 1800s. Back then, everybody just "knew" that space was filled with an "Aether Wind." The problem was that no one had ever seen it or measured it. Will the concepts of dark matter and dark energy meet the same fate as the Aether Wind of the 19th century? Time will tell.
For nearly six decades, the Arecibo Observatory has served as a beacon for breakthrough science… And now it will go dark. Following the collapse of two structurally important support cables, an engineering assessment has found that damage to the Arecibo Observatory cannot be stabilized without risk to construction workers and staff at the facility. With that, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) will begin plans to decommission the 305-meter telescope, which for 57 years has served as a world-class resource for radio astronomy, planetary, Solar System, and geospace research.
Saturn’s moon Titan is, in many ways, similar to our very early Earth, and can provide clues to how life may have arisen on our planet. NASA’s Dragonfly, set to blast-off in 2027, will dispatch a robotic drone to explore Titan’s diverse environments from organic dunes to the floor of an impact crater where liquid water and complex organic materials key to life once existed together for possibly tens of thousands of years. Its instruments will study how far pre-biotic chemistry may have progressed. It will also investigate the moon’s atmospheric and surface properties and its subsurface ocean and liquid reservoirs. Additionally, instruments will search for chemical evidence of past or extant life.
Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) are mysterious bright millisecond-duration bursts of radio emissions that up to now have only been observed billions of light years away in other galaxies. The radio bursts arrive first at high frequencies and then progressively sweep down to lower frequencies before disappearing completely and not recurring. FRBs have always been assumed to be caused by extreme catastrophic events in the distant Universe, but their true origin has to date been unknown. On April 28, 2020, a super-magnetized stellar remnant known as a magnetar blasted out a simultaneous mix of X-ray and radio signals never observed before. The flare-up included the first Fast Radio Burst ever seen from within our Milky Way galaxy and shows that magnetars can produce these mysterious and powerful radio blasts previously only seen in other galaxies.
Welcome to the night sky report for November 2020 -- Your guide to the constellations, deep sky objects, planets, and celestial events that are observable during the month. In November, hunt for the fainter constellations of fall, including Pisces, Aries, and Triangulum. They will guide you to find several galaxies and a pair of white stars. The night sky is truly a celestial showcase. Get outside and explore its wonders from your own backyard.
About two decades ago, astronomers identified an unusually high density of stars in our Milky Way Galaxy called the “Virgo Overdensity.” Star surveys revealed that some of these stars were moving toward us while others were moving away, which is unusual in that a cluster of stars would typically travel in concert. Based on emerging data, astrophysicists proposed that the overdensity was the result of a radial merger -- The stellar version of a T-bone crash of a dwarf galaxy into the Milky Way. It is believed that nearly 3 billion years ago, a dwarf galaxy plunged into the center of the Milky Way and was ripped apart by the gravitational forces of the collision. Astrophysicists at Rensselaer report that the merger produced a series of telltale shell-like formations of stars in the vicinity of the Virgo constellation -- The first such “shell structures” to be found in the Milky Way. The finding offers further evidence of the ancient event, and new possible explanations for other phenomena in the galaxy.
Today, OSIRIS-REx will attempt a historic feat for NASA -- To collect the first samples from an asteroid’s surface. The spacecraft will maneuver down to the selected Nightingale site on Bennu’s rocky and dusty surface to collect a sample for return to Earth. The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will attempt to gather at least 2 ounces of regolith from the asteroid Bennu. Since Bennu is so far away, the operators on the ground will issue instructions to the spacecraft and then it will autonomously approach Bennu and extend its robotic arm, called the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM). If all goes well, TAGSAM will stow the gathered material and begin the trip home for arrival in 2023.
Spaghettification is the vertical stretching and horizontal compression of objects into long thin shapes (rather like spaghetti) in a very strong gravitational field near black holes. The stretching is so powerful that no object can withstand its pull. It is theorized that the horizontal compression balances the vertical stretching so that object being “spaghettified” experiences no net change in volume. Astronomers have captured the last moments of a star just before it was ripped apart and spaghettified by a black hole. The violent occurrence, called a tidal disruption event, created a blast of light seen just 215 million light years from Earth -- the closest such flare recorded to date. To get a detailed look at just what happens when a star is devoured by a monstrous black hole, researchers pointed the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO’s) Very Large Telescope (VLT) and New Technology Telescope (NTT) at the new flash of light that occurred close to a supermassive black hole last year. Follow-up observations occurred over a six month period at multiple telescopes around the world, including the Center for Astrophysics (CfA) Harvard and Smithsonian's Multiple Mirror Telescope (MMT), located at the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory in Amado, Arizona.
Welcome to the night sky report for October 2020 -- Your guide to the constellations, deep sky objects, planets, and celestial events that are observable during the month. In October, Pegasus, the flying horse of Greek myth, becomes increasingly prominent in the southeastern sky. Look for M15 (NGC7078) and NGC7331. This October also brings a Harvest Moon and a Blue Moon. Plus look for Mars at any time of the night. The night sky is truly a celestial showcase. Get outside and explore its wonders from your own backyard.
Mars has long been known for its rust. Iron on its surface combined with water and oxygen from the ancient past, give the Red Planet its hue. But scientists were recently surprised to find evidence that our airless Moon has rust on it as well. While our Moon is airless, research indicates the presence of hematite, a form of rust that normally requires oxygen and water. That has scientists puzzled.
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