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Welcome to the night sky report for October 2017 -- Your guide to the constellations, deep-sky objects, planets, and celestial events that are observable during the month. The night sky is truly a celestial showcase, so get outside and explore its wonders from your own backyard. In the now famous words of James Marshall Hendrix (apparently a fellow admirer of the heavens), "Excuse me while I kiss the sky."
History changed 60 years ago today, on October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik 1. The world's first artificial satellite was about the size of a beach ball -- about 23 inches diameter -- and weighed less than 190 pounds. It took about 98 minutes to orbit the Earth on its elliptical path. That single launch ushered in a whole array of new political, military, technological, and scientific developments in the years that followed. While the Sputnik launch was a single event, it marked the start of the Space Age and the US - USSR space race.
Astronomers have identified a bumper crop of dual supermassive black holes in the centers of galaxies. This discovery could help astronomers better understand how giant black holes grow and how they may produce the strongest gravitational wave signals in the Universe. The new evidence reveals five pairs of supermassive black holes, each containing millions of times the mass of the Sun. These black hole couples formed when two galaxies collided and merged with each other, forcing their supermassive black holes close together.
The scorching hot surface of Mercury seems like an unlikely place to look for ice, but research over the past three decades has suggested that surface water is frozen at the two poles of the planet, hidden away on crater floors that are permanently shadowed from the Sun's blistering rays. Now, a new study led by Brown University researchers suggests that there could be much more ice on Mercury's surface than originally thought.
The smallest star yet measured has been discovered by a team of astronomers led by the University of Cambridge in the UK. With a size just a sliver larger than that of Saturn, the gravitational pull at its stellar surface is about 300 times stronger than what humans feel on Earth. The star is likely as small as stars can possibly become, as it has just enough mass to enable the fusion of hydrogen nuclei into helium. If it were any smaller, the pressure at the center of the star would no longer be sufficient to enable this process to take place.
After two decades in space, NASA's Cassini spacecraft is nearing the end of its remarkable journey of exploration. Having expended almost every bit of its rocket propellant, operators are deliberately plunging Cassini into the giant planet to ensure that Saturn's moons will remain pristine and uncontaminated for future exploration -- in particular, the ice covered, ocean-bearing moon Enceladus, and Titan, with its intriguing pre-biotic chemistry. From its launch in 1997 to its upcoming Grand Finale, the Cassini-Huygens mission has racked up a remarkable list of achievements, and in the process has paved the way for the next generation of probes that will explore the four outer gaseous planets.
Do you yawn when you read an Astromart News posting? I hope not. But if you do, does your spouse or significant other also yawn even though he or she is across the room? Why is that so? Is this what Albert Einstein would label "Spooky action at a distance?" Nah. But still, why do we yawn if someone else does? Researchers at the University of Nottingham suggest that the human propensity for contagious yawning is triggered automatically by primitive reflexes in the primary motor cortex -- an area of the brain responsible for motor function. Their latest findings show that our ability to resist yawning when someone else near us yawns is limited... And our urge to yawn is increased if we are instructed to resist yawning.
To the unaided eye the famous bright star Antares shines with a strong red tint in the heart of the constellation Scorpius. It is a huge and comparatively cool red supergiant in the late stages of its life, on the way to becoming a supernova. A team of astronomers, led by Keiichi Ohnaka, of the Universidad Catolica del Norte in Chile, used ESO's Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) at the Paranal Observatory in Chile to map Antares' surface and to measure the motions of the surface material. This is the best image of the surface and atmosphere of any star other than the Sun.
For the average observer, the Solar Eclipse on Monday, August 21, 2017, will last about 2 minutes and 40 seconds of totality. The National Solar Observatory (NSO), in a unique experiment, plans to create 90 minutes of continuous totality using a chain of 68 telescopes strategically placed across the country. The Citizen CATE (Continental America Telescopic Eclipse) Experiment aims to capture images of the inner solar corona using a network of telescopes operated by volunteer citizen scientists, high school groups, and universities. The goal of CATE is to produce a scientifically unique data set -- A series of high resolution, rapid cadence white light images of the inner corona for 90 straight minutes.
Total solar eclipses are unique opportunities for scientists to study the hot atmosphere above the Sun's visible surface. The faint light from the Corona is usually overpowered by intense emissions from the Sun itself. During a total eclipse, however, the Moon blocks the glare from the bright solar disk and darkens the sky, allowing the weaker coronal emissions to be observed. A team led by Southwest Research Institute will use airborne telescopes aboard NASA WB-57 research aircraft to study the solar corona and Mercury's surface during next week's total solar eclipse. The August 21 observations will provide the clearest images to date of the Sun's outer atmosphere. In addition, the scientists will attempt to take the first-ever thermal images of surface temperature variations of the planet Mercury.
Imagine planting a single seed and with great precision being able to predict the exact height of the tree that grows from it. Now imagine traveling to the future and snapping photographic proof that you were right. If you think of the seed as the early universe and the tree as the universe the way it looks now, you have an idea of what the Dark Energy Survey (DES) collaboration has just done. DES scientists have just unveiled the most accurate measurement ever made of the present large scale structure of the universe, and have been able to map it back to the first 400,000 years following the Big Bang.
The Sun's core spins nearly four times faster than the Sun's surface according to new findings by an international team of astronomers. Scientists had originally assumed that the Sun was spinning like a merry-go-round with the core rotating at about the same speed as the surface. The researchers studied surface acoustic waves in the Sun's atmosphere, some of which penetrate to the Sun's core, where they interact with gravity waves that have a sloshing motion similar to how water would move in a half-filled tanker truck driving on a curvy mountain road. After the Sun formed, the Solar wind likely slowed the rotation of the outer part of the Sun. It is hoped that eventually, a better understanding of the rotation of the Solar core may give a clue to how the Sun formed.
So, what will you be doing during the Great American Solar Eclipse of 2017? Observing? Photographing? Throwing a Great American Eclipse party in your backyard? In past total solar eclipses, people have spent thousands of dollars on extravagant trips and cruises to remote parts of the world to cross this experience off of their "bucket lists." This year, you will be able to walk outside and see one for yourself from the comfort of your home (weather permitting). On August 21, 2017, most of the nation will only see a partial eclipse, but if you are one of the lucky millions along the path of totality, you will experience about two minutes of mid-day darkness as the black shadow of the Moon races across the nation at about 2000 mph.
NASA's Juno mission completed a close flyby of Jupiter and its Great Red Spot on July 10, 2017, during its sixth science orbit. Just days after celebrating its first anniversary in Jupiter orbit, the Juno spacecraft flew directly over the planet's Great Red Spot, the gas giant's iconic, 10,000 mile wide (16,000 kilometer wide) storm. This was humanity's first up-close view of the gigantic feature -- a storm monitored by astronomers since 1830, and possibly existing for centuries before that.
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