R1,9bn for SKA, MeerKAT telescopes

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and MeerKAT radio telescope projects have been allocated R1,9bn over the next three years, according to the 2013 national budget tabled by finance minister Pravin Gordhan before the South African Parliament on Wednesday the 27th of February, 2013.

SA has also started negotiations with foreign partners to help fund the construction of the world’s next generation radio telescope — the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) — which is set to dwarf any other existing astronomy instrument. The SKA project will suck in a broad investment expected to run to billions of US dollars, a bill SA expects its partners in the deal will have to pick up part of. The bulk of the project will be built in SA,s remote and arid south-west in the Karoo region.

Bernie Fanaroff, a graduate in physics from the University of the Witwatersrand, has worked as a radio astronomer for more than a decade and in that time he has made two major international contributions to the science. One, in 1974, was a breakthrough in the classification of radio galaxies with a British astronomer, Julia Riley. It is called the Fanaroff-Riley classification and is renowned among astronomers.  His second, and for South Africa perhaps the more significant one, is that he lead the team that has landed the biggest global scientific project in Africa, the Square Kilometre Array, or SKA.

South Africa now has the lion’s share of the SKA project, but now we need to start producing the scientists to carry out the research on the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope, if we want the project to be an unqualified success. The head of astronomy at the National Research Foundation (NRF), Nithaya Chetty, is quoted as having said that it was essential for the continent to start investing in human capacity development.  In his own words,. “It is going to be absolutely tragic, if all we do is build up the infrastructure and we don’t have sufficient African scientists to utilize these excellent facilities.”

All this Big Science is happening about 70 km northwest of the sleepy Karoo town of Carnarvon, which reputedly has more churches than ATMs. This former 19th-century mission station is the closest town to a science and astronomy hub that is forming in the arid central Karoo region where the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) mega-telescope will be built. Scientists now fly in on a weekly chartered flight. Property prices have shot up, the number of guesthouses has grown, and the pretty town of fewer than 6 000 people has made it onto television news weather maps.

But, one in two locals are still unemployed, and the SKA team has cautioned that most of the jobs will be in the construction phase on the site. People have high expectations that the MeerKAT/SKA project is going to alleviate the poverty in this region, but it’s a science project, not a job creation project.  Only time will tell what the overall effect of these projects will be on Carnarvon.


Three Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope (LCOGT) Network telescopes at Sutherland see first-light

Three robotic 1-meter telescopes were installed this week at the South Africa Astronomical Observatory (SAAO), Sutherland. The telescopes were built and tested at the LCOGT facility in in Santa Barbara and delivered to the SAAO site on Monday, February 18th 2013. Five days later, on the night of February 22, all three telescopes were on-sky.

A small installation team of five arrived a week before the telescopes and installed the piers and cryogenic cooling systems. When the telescopes arrived, they were quickly craned into the three domes constructed during 2012, and assembled. They were then wired into the pre-installed electrical systems after which the team mechanically aligned the primary mirrors, installed the optical tube assembly including the secondary, and then mechanically aligned that. They then installed the instrument package, tested the mount motors, and prepared to go on-sky.

The LCOGT installation team consists of Lead Deployment Engineer, Annie Hjelstrom and telescope technicians Kurt Van der Horst, Matrk Crellin, and David Petry as well as LCOGT postdoctoral scholar Abiy Tekola, working out of the SAAO headquarters.

The three LCOGT domes against the evening sky at the SAAO site in Sutherland. Photograph Kevin Govender.
First light photo from dome A. photograph LCOGT installation team.


It has been suggested, amongst others by Roger Lancelyn Green, that Lewis Caroll’s nonsense rhym “Jabberwocky”, in Alice through the Looking Glass, is a parody of an older German ballad The Shepherd of the Giant Mountains.  In the ballad a shepherd first burns a Griffin’s nest with its young and then fights off and kills the parent griffin.This ballad was translated into English in blank verse by Carroll’s cousin Menella Bute Smedley in 1846, many years before the appearance of the Alice books.

On the other hand the historian, Sean B. Palmer, has suggested that Carroll was inspired by a section from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and he cites the lines from Act I, Scene I : “The graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted dead/Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets“.

Jabberwocky has been translated into a number of languages but here is an ingenious version titled Thermowocky, written by Alex Pelle, that is very possibly fairly unknown.  It appeared in American Scientist 46:116A way back in 1960.


’Twas quantig and the vuscy graph
Unscrewed its curves with shrill delight;
The beaty ewes began to laugh
And the slismal logs took flight.’

’Beware the Entropy Beast, my son!
The mouth that sucks, the breath that cools!
Beware the Bolzman bird, and shun
The chattering caloric ghouls!’

He took his dritting pen in hand:
Long tome the beast of heat he sought –
The he rested ny the Plink-Plack tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in thermal thought he stood,
The Entropy Beast, with with eyes of flame,
Came slurping through the melting wood,
And siphoned as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through.
The branksome pen went snicker-snack!
The head, the feet and now the heat,
Released came streaming back.

‘And hast though slain the Entropy Beast?
Accept this laurel for your head!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!
The glarvish thief of heat is dead!’

’Twas quantig and the vuscy graph
Unscrewed its curves with shrill delight;
The beaty ewes began to laugh
And the slismal logs took flight.’



The Walrus and the Carpenter

While serving time as a lecturer in Biochemistry at the University of Stellenbosch, I wrote the following in Afrikaans:

Die Walrus en die, Timmerman
(Uit Alice deur die Spieël van Lewis Caroll, soos vertaal deur André P. Brink en aangepas deur Edward Foster)

‘Nou is dit tyd,’ sê die Dosent toe,
‘Om gedagtes uit te stal,
Oor peptiede, ensieme, pH’s en ewewigte,
Kragte wat vasklou of wegstoot en,
‘n Duisternis reaksies met all die
Metaboliese geheime van plante en diere.’

‘Dis jammer, né,’ së die Dosent,
‘Om so met jul te maak,
Nadat jul dit so ver gebring het –
En daarby gedink het die antwoorde is raak!’
Die Dosent grynslag grimmig en sê,
‘Gee my rooi pen aan, dis al laat!’

Die Dosent sug: ‘Ek ween oor julle,
My hart is vol medelye.’
Hy snik soos hy huil terwyl hy soek
Om ‘n vraestel beet te kry.
Sy sakdoek hou hy oopgevou
Dat sy trane daarin gly.

NOCTUARY – February 2013 Edition

The latest edition (February 2013) of NOCTURAY is available.  To wet your appetites here is the table of contents and if you wish to read the full articles go here.

Gallery: Comet Lemmon . . . . . . . . . . . . . … . . . 02
A selection of photographs of the lovely Comet Lemmon that
graced the deep southern skies during January and February.

From the Archimedes Archives . . . . . . . . . . . . 03
Interesting bits and pieces to pique the astronomically curious.

Deep-sky Highlight: The Blue Planetary . . . . 06
A deep-sky gem hiding in Centaurus.

Dark Emu Rising . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . 07
The spectacular dark nebula complex known to some as the Dark
Emu rises, in pursuit of the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds.

Astrophotography tutorial (Part 2) . . . . . . .  . . 09
The second installment of Brett du Preez’s astrophotography
tutorial takes a personal detour.

Jargon Jambalaya . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13
Some astrojargon explained.

The Tale of Hydra . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16
A convoluted story surrounds the largest, and one of the most
ancient, constellations.

A South African Champion . . . . . . . . . . . .  . . . . 24
The nearest star to the solar system has been seen by few people.
Use this finder chart to catapult yourself amongst the elite.

Noise vs. ISO in Astrophotography . . . . . . . . . 25
What’s the best ISO setting to use on your DSLR when taking
astrophotos? Here’s one way of finding out.

Briefly Noted . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  27
Some housekeeping announcements and other stuff that didn’t
fit in elsewhere: Lacaille’s Sky – On the Cover – Noctuary
downloads – About Noctuary

The Russian Meteor

The title might, at first glance, suggest to some that the Russian automotive industry has arisen, phoenix like from the ashes of its embarrassingly mediocre past, to produce a vehicle that is taking the word of super cars for the super rich, by storm.  The truth, however, is that what people with a sound knowledge of matters astronomical and of meteors in particular, have been warning about for several decades, has finally happened; the Earth was hit by a fair sized chunk of space rock that appeared out of nowhere while we were all watching the decoy, asteroid 2012 DA14, wiz by harmlessly in the opposite direction.  The current scientific opinion is that this object does not appear to have been related to asteroid 2012 DA14 in any way.

The question of what exactly a meteor is, is a bit confusing.  The International Astronomical Union (IAU) defined a meteoroid in 1961 as “considerably smaller than an asteroid and considerably larger than an atom.”  Then, in 1995, Martin Beech and Duncan Steel proposed a new definition which set the size to between 100 µm and 10 m.  Following the discovery of an asteroid smaller than 10 m, Alan Rubin and Jeffrey Grossman, in 2010, proposed a size limit of between 10 µm and 1 m in diameter to meet the IAU’s original definition.

When a meteoroid enters the Earth’s atmosphere, leaving its bright trail of superheated particles, it becomes a meteor and only when it hits the ground is it a meteorite.  These name tags are not interchangeable, as some of the persons writing articles and posts seem to think.  However, this one was larger than 1 m and Detlef Koschny, Head of Near-Earth Object activity at ESA’s Space Situational Awareness (SSA) programme office, says that, when all the information has been evaluated this will probably be classified as a small asteroid rather than a meteor.

The only other recorded event of this nature was also in Russia; the Tunguska-event of 1908 in Siberia, so perhaps it would be more appropriate to refer to this event as the Chelyabinsk meteor or, eventually, the Chelyabinsk asteroid.  It was detected by a worldwide network of infrasound sensors before it surprised the citizens of Chelyabinsk and the data from these various stations, as processed by Peter Brown at the University of Western Ontario, Canada, currently indicates that the object was about 17 m in diameter and probably had a mass of 10 000 tons (about one third of the mass of asteroid 2012 DA14) when it entered the Earth’s atmosphere at around 18 km/sec (more than 64 000 km/h) over Alaska.

From the point where it entered the atmosphere to the final disintegration at an altitude of about 10 km above Chelyabinsk, 6 500 km away, (at 01:12.00 SAST) took just over 32 seconds.  The Chelyabinsk meteor’s trajectory was very shallow and it was visible for a total of around 30 seconds and is reported to have been brighter than the sun when it passed over observers on the ground.  Had the trajectory not been as shallow it might have made a direct hit anywhere between Alaska and Chelyabinsk, most likely somewhere on the North American continent or in the North Atlantic Ocean.

Information on the Chelyabinsk meteor itself is far from complete and will continue to be updated as data from more and more sources are collected and collated.  Media reports from Chelyabinsk have so far disclosed that upward of 1 100 people were injured in the blast and as many as 4 000 buildings were damaged, but these figures are by no means final.  According to the official webpage of the regional governor a large hole, that suddenly appeared in the ice of Lake Chebarkul, was probably caused by a substantial fragment of the meteor, but divers have been unable to find anything.  Other reports indicate that many of the pieces fell close to the town of Chebarkul and other, as yet unsubstantiated, reports claim that the object was intercepted by the air defence complex at the Urzumka village near Chelyabinsk.

Thomas Reiter, ESA’s Director of Human Spaceflight and Operations said, “Today’s event is a strong reminder of why we need continuous efforts to survey and identify near-Earth objects.”  ESA’s SSA programmes are developing a system of automated optical telescopes that can detect asteroids and other objects in solar orbits. ESA cooperates with international survey efforts to achieve the goal of spotting near-Earth objects larger than 40 m at least three weeks before closest approach to our planet.  ESA’s Optical Ground Station in Tenerife, Spain is a key element in these programs and SSA also participates in other European and international asteroid survey activities. ESA sponsors astronomy groups in Europe that carry out surveys with their own equipment and allocates observation time on the Tenerife telescope too.

Go here to read more about the Chelyabinsk meteor  or go here read more about ESA.

A twist in the tail of this otherwise very serious affair is that a Russian MP has blamed the entire occurrence on a US secret arms test, according to a report in the Journal of Turkish Weekly.  Read more about this bizarre allegation.

Asteroid 2012 DA14

So what is all the hype about?  After all this space rock is going to miss us. Yes, but in terms of astronomical distances this is a close miss that could easily have been a direct hit. At its closest approach to Cape Town it will be a tad over 34 thousand km away, which is less than a tenth of the distance between the Earth and the Moon and will place it inside the orbit of several of the geosynchronous communication satellites that orbit the Earth.

Asteroid 2012 DA14 is just over 40 metres in diameter and has a mass of around 190 000 metric tonnes.  Those of you that are mathematically inclined can use its speed of around
25 000 km/h to calculate the amount of energy it would generate, if it hit the Earth.

Remember also that this particular rock is in an orbit that brings it into the vicinity of the Earth twice a year.  How many attempts is it going to take to eventually score a hit?

For a finder chart visit Auke on psychohistorian and for more details and other charts visit DISCOVER’s Bad Astronomy page or go to MailOnline.  You can also visit the One Minute Astronomer for supplementary information on the asteroid and on the two comets currently visible.

Comet C/2012 S1 (ISON) – Will it be the comet of the century?

Comet C/2012 S1 (ISON)  was discovered on the 21st September.2012 by two Russian astronomers using the 40 cm telescope of the International Scientific Optical Network (ISON) near Kislovodsk. Kislovodsk is a spa city in the Stavropol Krai, in the North Caucasus region of Russia, between the Black and Caspian Seas.

The Spa-buildings in Kislovodsk. Photo credit Wikipedia.

In September 2012 Vitali Nevski loaded the images of a routine survey he was conducting, into a computer program designed to detect asteroids and comets moving between images. The results turned up a rather bright object with unusually slow movement, which suggested to him it was located way beyond the orbit of Jupiter, but he couldn’t tell if the object was a comet or not. His colleague, Artyom Novichonok, then booked time on a larger telescope to take another look and, a day or so later the new images revealed that Nevski and Novichonok had, in fact, discovered a comet which was named Comet ISON. A database search showed it had already been seen in images taken by other telescopes earlier that year and, in fact, as far back as late 2011 but nobody had identified it as a comet.

On the other side of the world, a team from the University of Maryland and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are employing NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft to track ISON and gather more detailed information.  Deep Impact, as you might remember, smashed a probe into comet Tempel ! in June 2005, subsequently executed a close flyby of comet Hartley 2 and then carried out detailed scientific observations of comet Garradd. The Deep Impact team now has its sights set on comet ISON which, although it is still more than 700 million km from the Sun, is apparently already active, because in January 2013 it had a tail more than 64 000 km long.  At present comet, ISON can barely be distinguished from the stars in the constellation of Cancer.

Comet ISON is expected to reach perihelion on the 28th November 2013 when it passes within 1,2 million km (0,012 AU) of the Sun’s surface and at its closest approach to earth on the 26th December 2013 it will be about 64 million km away (0,427 AU) from the surface of our planet.  It is thought that this is Comet ISON’s first visit to the Sun and the fact that it is a “new” comet probably means it will contain larger than usual amounts of volatile material, so its close approach to the Sun could result in an enormous outgassing of this material, providing a visual display of note, as seen from Earth.  The close approach could also cause the comet to break up, but nobody can predict that with any certainty, as was shown by comet Elenin in 2012.

The comet is currently very faint, but as it approaches the Sun, it will steadily brighten and should be easily picked up by experienced amateur astronomers with CCD equipment in the coming months. It will be a binocular object by September/October 2013, and eventually become visible to the naked eye in early November. Depending on its eventual brightness, which cannot be accurately predicted, the comet should remain visible to the naked eye from early November 2013 to mid-January 2014.  Some estimates say it will have a very long tail and should be as bright as the Full Moon, making it potentially visible during the day!

For more information visit these three sites

For a very informative image from the RAS observatory near Mayhill in New  Mexico, USA go here.

Comet Lemmon and Associate

Comet C2012 F6, commonly known as comet Lemmon, is proving rather difficult to find and even more difficult to photograph from my location.  In a week from now I might be able to get a better view from the northern Cederberg, but I have a sneaking suspicion the southern horizon is going to be too high from our location there.  It should be very well placed for photographing then, as it is expected to be just a hairsbreadth west of NGC 104 (47 Tucana) so I will hold thumbs and wait and see.

In the mean time Auke has been keeping tabs in Lemmon’s passage through the Southern Skies and there are finder charts and photos at www.psychohistorian.org . For a very impressive photograph of Lemmon with a tail visit Dieter Willasch’s site at http://astro-cabinet.com/showimage.php?image=Lemmon-5m-stars_90m-comet_RGB1.jpg&lang=english .

Comet Lemmon was discovered on 23rd March 2012 by Alex Gibbs of the Mount Lemmon Survey while routinely scanning for near earth objects.  At that point it was very faint at magnitude 20,7 and the prediction was that it would not improve to more than magnitude 7,7 but comet Lemmon has surprised everyone and looks as if it might reach magnitude 2 by the 21st March and be a naked eye object from dark sites.

Comet PANSTARRS, officialy known as Comet C/2011 L4  was first spotted in in June 2011 by the Pan-STARRS (Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System) telescope near the summit of Haleakala in the island of Maui in Hawaii. Initially it was at magnitude 19 but has brightened to magnitude 13,5.  Its closest approach to the Sun (perihelion) will be on the 10th March and its closest distance to the Earth on the 5th March will be 1,09 astronomical units (au).

First estimates of its brightness were that it might reach an apparent magnitude of 0 (comparable to alpha-Centauri A or Vega).  A revised estimate in October 2012 predicted that it might brighten to magnitude -4 (more or less Venus) and the current estimates are more conservative, predicting a magnitude of +1. For a comparison, Capella B is +0,96 & Spica 1,04.

Comet C/2011 L4 has come a long way as it is estimated thet it probably left its home in the Oort Cloud about a million years ago.  Currently it is visible about 15 degrees above the horizon between Telescopium and Microscopium.

More about comet C/212 S1 (ISON) which is expected to be a major spectacle in an upcoming post.

Clear Skies and Good Viewing.