National Science Week: July 27th to August 04th at various venues

The report on our activities can be found here.


If all goes well and if the notoriously fickle Cape winter weather gives us a break, National Science Week will see Auke, Lynnette and myself setting up at various venues promoting science in general and astronomy in particular.  Pay us a visit at the following venues.

Saturday the 27th and Sunday the 28th of July – Zewenwacht Mall in Kuils River
Monday the 29th and Wednesday the 31st of July – Bellville Public Library coinciding with their annual Careers Exhibition
Tuesday the 30th of July – Brackenfell Public Library
Friday the 02nd and Saturday the 03rd of August – Willowbridge Centre
Sunday the 04th August – Ampitheatre at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront

You probably noticed that Thursday the 01st August is missing from the list.  That is because we have not as yet finalized the venue for the Thursday but that will take place as soon as possible.

The day program at the libraries will include talks in the mornings and afternoons while at the other venues we will give short talks or explanations at the poster display.  After sundown there will be a naked eye star gazing opportunity as well as the viewing of deep-space objects through a telescope.  There will also be a hands-on demonstration of how the Universe is studied using a modern telescope.

Fossils, Light & Time – South Africa’s unique fossil record.  The topic of this talk seems out of place in the astronomy context but, in placing the Southern African geological and paleontological background in the context of the Earth’s evolution, it connects with astronomy by comparing the enormous distances in the Universe (expressed as the time light would take to traverse them) to the equally vast spans of geological time comprising the Earth’s history.

South Africa’s Heritage in the Stars – Astronomy and Indigenous Knowledge.  This talk explores the rich ethnoastronomy of the sub-Saharan tradition cultures and in particular those of the Southern African region.  The talk, presented by Auke Slotegraaf not only covers aspects such as the Sun, Moon, planets and shooting stars but also highlights two /Xam Bushman narratives which he discovered and presented at an international conference on the history of astronomy in 2005.

Ancient comets and Space-age satellites: examples of maths in astronomy.  There is no talk specifically dedicated to mathematics but there are two specially prepared posters which illustrate mathematical concepts using examples from an astronomy background.  The intention is to focus attention on the fact that maths is an essential tool in the pure and applied sciences.

See what our ancestors saw – Star gazing with the naked eye.  This item is a guided tour of the night sky using a green laser to point out stars and planets that are visible with the naked eye. All presenters are certified laser operators with the Department of Health.
Both contemporary constellations, as used by modern astronomers and the traditional African constellations will be pointed out, in an attempt to highlight the fact that astronomy is an integral part of our cultural history and heritage.

See for yourself – Star gazing with a telescope.  Using a small telescope, members of the public will be able to view objects in the sky for themselves, without the aid of any electronics or other sophisticated instrumentation.

Studying the Universe with a 21st century telescope (Astronomy & Technology).  A computer-controlled telescope will be used to demonstrate to the public how astronomers study the Universe.  A live image of the object the telescope is pointing to, will be projected onto a large screen, making it easy to see even in the brightly lit city environment.
Using a live image of a deep space object makes explaining the physical nature of the object easier and also lends itself to showing how, in principle, the image would be analysed by astronomers.

A very nice layout with examples of the posters that will be on display can be viewed on Psycohistorian’s website by clicking here.

Universality of Circular Polarization in Star- and Planet-forming Regions: Implications for the Origin of Homochirality of Life

A  research team headed by Jungmi Kwon, has carried out deep imaging linear and circular polarimetry of the ‘Cat’s  paw Nebula’ (NGC 6334) located in the constellation Scorpius.  Their results indicate levels of circular polarization (CP) as high as 22% in NGC 6334 which is the highest level of CP ever observed.

The team has also carried out the first systematic survey of both linear and circular polarimetry in nine star- and planet-forming regions. Their results from the various star-forming regions show the presence of CP in all of these regions. These results are assumed to indicate that CP is a universal feature of star- and planet-forming regions.

The processes involved in star and planet formation and the origin of life are neither clear nor generally agreed upon and Jungmi Kwon’s team, from GUAS, NAOJ, and JSPS, are working on these problems. The team used the IRSF 1.4 m telescope with SIRPOL imaging
polarimeter at the South African Astronomical Observatory in Sutherland. The telescope and instrument are operated by Nagoya University, Kyoto University, and NAOJ. SIRPOL is an instrument developed by the group that enables them to simultaneously obtain information about both circularly polarized and linearly polarized light. It also enables wide-field imaging polarimetry (~ 8 x 8 arcmin square = ~ 1/4 diameter of the Moon), of a considerably wider field than other instruments. The IRSF/SIRPOL combination has one of the highest performances at present available for detecting polarized light (either linear and/or circular) in the near-infrared over a wide field of view.

Life on Earth makes extensive (almost exclusive) use of “left-handed amino acids (L-amino acids)”. The question of why organisms on Earth preferentially utilize L-amino acids instead of D-amino acids or D-sugars instead of L-sugars is as yet unresolved. The effort to solve this problem is of paramount importance if the outstanding issues surrounding the origin of Life are to be resolved. The knowledge that CP, which is known to influence molecular chirality, occurs much more widely than previously suspected in star-forming regions, could be an important part of the missing information required to satisfactorily explain the origin of Life.

Antarctica Team Finds Largest Chondrite Meteorite in the Past 25 Years

An international team of scientists at Belgium’s Princess Elisabeth Antarctica research station has found the largest meteorite in nearly 25 years.  This find has the potential to facilitate the unlocking of secrets about the original chemistry of our solar system’s. The eight members of the SAMBA (Surface Antarctic Mass Balance)  project, from Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) and Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), Japan’s National Institute of Polar Research (NIPR) and Tokyo University were searching for meteorites scattered across the Nansen Ice Field on January 28, when they found the 18kg chondrite. SAMBA is a research activity coordinated by GLACIOCLIM (Les Glaciers, un Observatoire du Climat)

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.

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.

Next-Generation Adaptive Optics Brings Remarkable Details To Light In Stellar Nursery

Gemini Observatory Press/Image Release

Researchers Peter Pessev & Benoit Neichel of the Gemini Observatory, La Serena, Chile claimed they had the best New Year’s Celebrations possible when they obtained this incredibly detailed data from the observatory’s adaptive optics (AO) system. The photo shown here features an area on the outskirts of the well known Orion Nebula and show cases the instrument’s very significant technological advances over the previous generation of AO instruments.

Gemini South presnts us with a view of a portion of the Orion nebula as never seen before. Image Credit: Gemini Observatory/AURA

The system combines the use of five laser guide stars with multiple deformable mirrors enabling it to go far beyond what has previously been possible using adaptive optics in astronomy,  Benoit Neichel, currently leading the AO program for Gemini, says that years of dedicated work have gone into the project culminating in this magnificent image. This image, he claims, is only a glimpse of the system’s enormous scientific potential. The Gemini Multi-Conjugate Adaptive Optics System (GeMS) is installed on the Gemini South telescope in Chile. This is the most advanced adaptive optics system available and will enable astronomers to study the universe with an unprecedented level of clarity and detail by removing distortions due to the Earth’s atmosphere.

NASA’S Kepler Mission Discovers 461 New Planet Candidates

On Monday NASA’s Kepler mission announced the discovery of 461 new planet candidates. Four of the potential new planets are less than twice the size of Earth and orbit in their sun’s “habitable zone,” the region in the planetary system where liquid water might exist on the surface of a planet. Christopher Burke, Kepler scientist at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, who is leading the analysis, said: “There is no better way to kickoff the start of the Kepler extended mission than to discover more possible outposts on the frontier of potentially life bearing worlds.”

The Kepler catalog now lists a total of 2,740 potential planets orbiting 2,036 stars and there has been a dramatic increase in the number of Earth-size and super Earth-size candidates; up by 43 and 21 percent respectively. Current data increases the number of stars observed to have more than one planet from 365 to 467. As things now stand 43 percent of Kepler’s planet candidates appear to have neighbor planets. Go to the NASA press release to read the rest of the story.

A Temperature Below Absolute Zero: Atoms at Negative Absolute Temperature Are the Hottest Systems in the World

In many parts of the world a minus temperature (Celcius scale) during winter is normal and would only be surprising in summer.  On the absolute temperature scale, called the Kelvin scale, which is used by physicists, it is not possible to go below zero Kelvin.

The physical meaning of temperature, of a gas for instance is an indication or measure of the chaotic movement of its particles and the colder the gas becomes, the slower the particles will move and the shorter the distance they move will become. At zero Kelvin (a chilling minus 273 degrees Celsius) the particles stop moving and all disorder disappears. Thus, nothing can be colder than absolute zero on the Kelvin scale and a minus value is a no-no.

To upset this very basic assumption, please give a warm welcome to the physicists at the Ludwig-Maximilians University Munich and the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Garching.  Read the rest of this fascinating article on ScienceDaily.

Planets Abound: Astronomers Estimate That at Least 100 Billion Planets Populate the Galaxy

The conclusion of a new study by astronomers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) is that planetary systems are the norm in our galaxy and very probably in the cosmos. The team’s estimate is based on the analysis of the planets orbiting a star called Kepler-32. These planets are, according to the team, representative of the vast majority of planetary systems in the galaxy and may therefore be taken as a perfect case study for understanding how most planets form.  John Johnson, assistant professor of planetary astronomy at Caltech, who is the co-author of the study says: “There’s at least 100 billion planets in the galaxy — just our galaxy,  That’s mind-boggling.”  Their paper was recently accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal.  The rest of the article can be read on ScienceDaily..

Lunar Triple Whammy

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) is a robotic spacecraft launched by NASA on the 18th of June, 2009.  It orbits the Moon in a low polar orbit, a mere 50 km above the lunar surface, and is considered to be a precursor to future manned missions to our nearest neighbour in space. From the LRO’s detailed photographic record NASA hopes, amongst others, to locate safe landing sites, identify potential resources and characterize the radiation environment at likely landing sites.  The cost of the LRO mission is around $500 million.

A triple crater on the Moon, probably from a single object that broke up into three pieces. Image credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

A recent image of a crater triplet, that  has been named  “Tres Amicis” (Latin “three friends”) is particularly interesting. In the first place the three craters are all about the same size  – from left to right 180, 150, and 125 meters across.  Secondly they are very close together because the group only spans a total distance of about 450 meters, leading one to assume that the impacts are related. Go here see all the images and read the article on Bad Astronomy.