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Saturday, April 29, 2017

Imaging the April Fools Comet

As we have spent most of our time the past few months planning for the big road trip to New Mexico to install the Astronomical Telescope for Educational Outreach (ATEO), I thought it would be nice to do a little remote imaging during one of our weekly ATEO planning conference calls. With all of the comets that have been observable lately, why not quickly capture an image of one remotely from one of iTelescope's remote robotic telescopes, hosted at New Mexico Skies. This remote telescopes hosting facility is not too far from where Insight Observatory's ATEO telescope will be hosted in just over a month from now at SkyPi Online Observatories.

Comet 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresák pictured with the star Beta Draconis (lower right).  Image by Insight Observatory
Comet 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresák pictured with the star Beta Draconis (lower right).
 Image by Insight Observatory.

On the morning of Thursday, April 20, 2017, at 5:05 am EDT, I logged into iTelescope's T14 which is Takahashi FSQ Fluorite with a Petzval Apochromat Astrograph optical design for taking wide-field images. The CCD camera used to image the comet was an SBIG STL-11000M. The image is a simple combined 2 luminances at 5 minutes a piece. The comet's location was just north of the star Beta Draconis in the constellation Draco. If you zoom into the image, you will notice there are two comet nuclei. This demonstrates how much the comet moved between both five-minute images.

Comet 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresák, a comet whose identity took nearly 100 years to pin down, has made its closest approach to Earth on Saturday, April 1st, just in time for April Fools' Day, but it was not a cosmic prank. It was the comet's closest Earth encounter in more than 50 years, and maybe more than a century, stated by NASA officials.

The comet was first discovered in 1858 by Horace Parnell Tuttle of the Harvard College Observatory, Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was then re-discovered by Michel Giacobini in 1907 and Ľubor Kresák in 1951. The comet had two close encounters with Jupiter that have altered its orbit slightly. A member of the Jupiter family of comets, 41P makes a trip around the sun every 5.4 years, coming relatively close to Earth on some of those trips. On this approach, the comet will pass our planet at a distance of about 13 million miles (0.14 astronomical units) or about 55 times the distance from Earth to the moon.

As the comet passed closest to Earth (0.14 a.u.) from mid-March through early April, it continued to hurry across the circumpolar constellations Ursa Major and Draco. Created with Chris Marriott's SkyMap

"Comet hunters in the Northern Hemisphere should look for it near the constellations Draco and Ursa Major, which the Big Dipper is part of," NASA officials said in a statement. "Whether a comet will put on a good show for observers is notoriously difficult to predict, but 41P has a history of outbursts, and put on quite a display in 1973. If the comet experiences similar outbursts this time, there's a chance it could become bright enough to see with the naked eye. The comet was expected to reach perihelion, or its closest approach to the sun, on April 12." The comet should stay visible through the month of July this year.
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Friday, April 21, 2017

LHS 1140b - A Super-Earth in the Habitable Zone

We're getting our first good characterizations of terrestrial exoplanets lately. First, news broke of a possible planet around the nearest star to our Sun, Proxima Centauri. Then, we explored TRAPPIST-1, a mini solar system just 39 light-years away. Now, researchers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics announced the discovery today of a possible super-Earth orbiting an M-dwarf star just 34 light-years away. The discovery was published in the April 20th Nature.

An artist’s impression of exoplanet LHS 1140 orbiting a red dwarf star 41 light-years distant. ESO/SpaceEngine.org.

LHS 1140b is a tantalizing find. It is cool, red host, LHS 1140, contains only 15% the mass of our Sun and is at least 5 billion years old. The planet passes in front of its star once every 15 days as seen from Earth. Jason Dittman (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) and the team combined discovery data from the MEarth project with radial-velocity measurements from the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) survey.

The high-resolution follow-up observations enabled researchers to calculate the planet's orbital parameters and physical characteristics to a high degree of precision: The super-Earth, containing between 4.8 and 8.5 times Earth's mass, orbits just 0.09 astronomical units from its primary (almost a quarter of the average distance between the Sun and Mercury). The planet spans around 1.4 Earths. Combine its mass and radius and you'll calculate an incredibly dense 12.5 g/cm3 — the planet has more than twice Earth's average density!

Though red dwarfs are often tempestuous flare stars — a strike against life on any orbiting worlds — they're also long-lived and miserly in terms of energy output. These cool stars are expected to shine for trillions of years, longer than the present age of the Universe. That's a plus in that it gives ample time to get the engine of evolution going.

Read Full Source Article at http://www.skyandtelescope.com/astronomy-news/welcome-lhs-1140b-super-earth-habitable-zone/
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Monday, April 17, 2017

Get Ready for the 2017 Solar Eclipse

The Total Solar Eclipse is just about four months from now!

A total solar eclipse occurs when the Moon covers the face of the Sun as seen from Earth. The complete coverage allows us to see the day as if it were night, and it reveals the solar corona's ghostly wisps. The next total solar eclipse will occur this summer on August 21, 2017, and the eclipse path will cross the continental United States.

Solar Eclipse During Totality in 2015. Image by Miloslav Druckmüller, Shadia Habbal, Peter Aniol, Pavel Štarha
Solar Eclipse During Totality in 2015. Image by Miloslav Druckmüller, Shadia Habbal, Peter Aniol, Pavel Štarha.

The solar eclipse begins on August 21, 2017, at 16:48:33 Universal Time (UT), when the shadow descends down on the Pacific Ocean and the Moon takes its first small piece out of the Sun. Totality begins at 18:24:11.9 UT.

August 21, 2017, seemed a long way off from when we first starting talking about this event a few years ago, but for the astronomically savvy the clock has been ticking, and there was no time to waste. Between the last couple of years and now we needed to figure out how to ensure a good experience for the estimated 500 million people across North America who will stand in the Moon's shadow that day.

Path of the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse.
Path of the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse.
Most will see only a partial solar eclipse, but tens of millions within a 65-mile-wide track from Oregon to South Carolina will (weather permitting) witness one of Nature's grandest events. In what is being called the "Great American Eclipse", the Moon will completely block the Sun's bright face for up to 2 minutes 42 seconds, turning day into night and making visible the otherwise hidden and always breathtaking solar corona. Please visit NASA's Solar Eclipse page for more information on the best locations to view the solar eclipse.

Observe the Total Solar Eclipse Safely!

You should NEVER look directly at the sun, but there are ways to safely observe an eclipse. If you do plan to observe the August 2017 eclipse, remember: NEVER look directly at the sun without proper eye protection, except when the solar disk is completely occluded (during the brief period of totality); serious and permanent eye damage can result. However, we wouldn't recommend looking toward the sun without proper eye protection during any part of the eclipse.

"Proper eye protection" includes specially made solar filters, eclipse glasses or No. 14 welder's glass. There are also Solar Eclipse Kits for that are available for viewing this rare event. Observing the eclipse can be done without any astronomical equipment by making a pinhole camera or watching shadows cast by trees. (The gaps between leaves act as natural pinholes.)

Below are a few items that will allow you to view the eclipse in a safe manner:

4.30" ID Set of Orion Binocular Solar Filters Orion Solar Eclipse Safe Viewer, 5-pack
4.30 Orion Solar Eclipse Safe Viewer, 5-pack

You may also safely see the eclipse the old-fashioned way by building a Shoebox Pinhole Camera. Finally, if you miss out on the August 2017 event, don't panic as you'll get another chance seven years later. In 2024, a total solar eclipse will darken the skies above Mexico and Texas, up through the Midwest and the northeastern U.S.
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Saturday, April 15, 2017

See An Asteroid From Your Backyard

Every week, a handful of new Earth-approaching asteroids are caught in a net of robotic telescopes and join the ranks of nearly 16,000 other fly-by-night space boulders. Among their number is one 2014 JO25, discovered in May 2014 by astronomers at the Catalina Sky Survey (CSS) near Tucson, Arizona.

An artist's view of an Earth-approaching asteroid passing close to our planet. ESA / P.Carril
An artist's view of an Earth-approaching asteroid passing close
to our planet. ESA / P.Carril.

Observations made by NASA's NEOWISE mission have pegged the asteroid at roughly 650 meters (2,000 feet) across and twice as reflective as the Moon. That and its orbit are about all we know about this speeding space mountain for the moment.

That should change very soon. Asteroid 2014 JO25 will be making a close approach to Earth on April 19th. Because of its size and proximity, it will be bright enough to spot in a small, backyard telescope and moving fast enough to see in real-time.

Closest approach occurs around 12 UT (7 a.m. CDT) April 19th when it zips by at 1.8 million km (fewer than 1.1 million miles) away, or about four times the distance to the Moon. When darkness falls in Europe and Africa that evening, the asteroid will shine at its peak magnitude of +10.7 along the Ursa Minor–Draco border. Several hours later, North American observers can catch it rolling west across Coma Berenices a hair fainter, between magnitude +10.8 and +11.0.

See Full Source Article at http://www.skyandtelescope.com/observing/see-a-potentially-hazardous-asteroid-from-your-backyard/
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Saturday, April 1, 2017

ATEO Telescope Installation Journey

The time is FINALLY arriving! Our dream of installing the Astronomical Telescope for Educational Outreach (ATEO) is soon to become a reality. The plan is set for delivery of the ATEO and all of its imaging equipment the week of May 20, 2107. Insight Observatory co-founder Muir Evenden and I will be taking a 3-day road trip to Pie Town, New Mexico, where we will be installing and testing the 16" astrograph imaging telescope at its hosting facility, SkyPi Online Observatories. The telescope pier is ready for the deep-sky imaging system to be mounted on in SkyPi's Gamma Pod.

The pier where the ATEO will be installed on the week of May 20th, 2017.  The image was taken by webcam located in the Gamma Pod.
The pier where the ATEO will be installed on the week of May 20th, 2017.
The image was taken by webcam located in the Gamma Pod.

The observatory structure is designed to house two telescope setups as pictured above. At the time ATEO is installed we will have a neighbor from Arkansas who will also be imaging with a 12.5" Newtonian astrograph. John Evelan, managing member of SkyPi Remote Observatories quoted "I'm personally excited to see the 2 together in that pod as they will be our first "Newts".

The trip is mapped out to take us on a 12-hour journey on day 1 just over the Indiana border with day 2 taking another 12-hour excursion just past Oklahoma City. The road trip will then commence on day 3 with a 10-hour drive taking us to our final destination of Pie Town, New Mexico. Our goal is to arrive by mid-afternoon on Monday, May 22th, 2017. Muir and I will be staying on the observatory grounds for 5 days to install, configure and test the ATEO. We will be assisted by the staff at SkyPi to get the telescope online. We will then return the moving truck to Albuquerque, New Mexico and fly home to Boston, MA on the 28th of May.

Satellite image of the SkyPi Online Observatory Campus - Image captured from Google Earth
Satellite image of the SkyPi Online Observatory Campus 
Image captured from Google Earth.

We are very excited to see our plan go into action after having this vision 6 years ago when Insight Observatory was founded. Muir and I plan on documenting the trip and the progress of the ATEO installation on this blog throughout the week of May 20th.
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Comet Lovejoy Brightens

Who doesn't love a comet that exceeds expectations? That's exactly what's happening with Terry Lovejoy's latest discovery, C/2017 E4 Lovejoy. Discovered on March 10th at magnitude +12, early observations suggested a peak magnitude of +9 in mid-April, assuming it didn't crumble apart en route to an April 23rd perihelion. Terry Lovejoy's comet discovery back in 2014, designated C/2014 Q2, was a real treat for northern hemisphere observers.

A faint ion trail extends for more than 1° in this photo taken on March 30. Note the comet's flattened coma shape.  North is up and east left. C/2017 E4 passes closest to Earth on March 31 (0.6 a.u.) and closest to the Sun on  April 23 (0.5 a.u.) Image by Gerald Rhemann.
A faint ion trail extends for more than 1° in this photo taken on March 30. Note the comet's flattened coma shape.
North is up and east left. C/2017 E4 passes closest to Earth on March 31 (0.6 a.u.) and closest to the Sun on
April 23 (0.5 a.u.) Image by Gerald Rhemann.

Forget that. This fuzzball's already magnitude +7–7.5 and a snap to see in 50-mm binoculars. I know because I got up Wednesday morning (March 29th) shortly before the start of dawn, pointed my 10×50 glass just below the figure of Equuleus, the Little Horse, and saw a small, dense ball of glowing fuzz without even trying. Comet 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak — now circumpolar in Ursa Major — shines at a similar brightness, but being larger and less condensed, it's not quite as easy to see as Lovejoy.

A little more than a week ago, Comet Lovejoy glowed at magnitude +10–11; a few days ago it was at +9. Given its meteoric rise in brightness, observers are anticipating the comet to crest to magnitude +6 around perihelion as it describes a roller coaster arc across Pegasus and Andromeda. Twice it passes bright deep-sky objects: the bright globular cluster M15 on April 1st and the Andromeda Galaxy on April 20–22. Another easy time to spot it will be on April 8–9 alongside β Pegasi in the northwest corner of the Great Square.

With the Moon out of the picture until around April 7th, comet watchers have lots of dark-sky time to pursue this new find. Just remember that you'll only have a relatively short time before the start of dawn when the comet is highest in the eastern sky. Because of increasingly early sunrises, Lovejoy maintains a fairly constant 15° elevation at the start of morning twilight from mid-northern latitudes through mid-April. My observation was made at 5 a.m. about 10 minutes before dawn's first light. Look for a small, fuzzy spot that appears at first glance like an out of focus star.

Read Full Source Article at http://www.skyandtelescope.com/observing/comet-lovejoy-brightens-quickly-heads-north/
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