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PostPosted: Sun Aug 17, 2008 6:05 pm 

Joined: Fri May 16, 2008 10:09 pm
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Location: Headcorn, Kent, England
Electronic News Bulletin No. 250 2008 August 17

Here is the latest round-up of news from the Society for Popular
Astronomy. The SPA is Britain's liveliest astronomical society, with
members all over the world. We accept subscription payments online
at our secure site and can take credit and debit cards. You can join
or renew via a secure server or just see how much we have to offer by

By Alastair McBeath, SPA Meteor Section Director

Many thanks and heartiest congratulations to ENB Editor Clive Down
and Professor Roger Griffin from all at the Meteor Section, as their
hard work in overseeing the continued production and quality of the
Electronic News Bulletins carries us smartly past issue 250. I only wish
we'd had better skies to see the Perseids from in Britain this year to
help celebrate it, but as the notes below illustrate, the shower was still
going on astronomically above the overcast, and produced rather a

By Alastair McBeath, SPA Meteor Section Director

Indeed, as observations and reports continue to come through from
across the Perseid maximum, it's been difficult to assess properly
what happened with the shower this year as yet. The problem has been
compounded by a) some very poor weather - not just here in the UK! -
and b) increasing amounts of moonlight on all nights since the peaks
were expected on August 12.

However, things are growing clearer rapidly now. SPA Assistant
Meteor Director David Entwistle in Lancashire made an evaluation of
his automated radio data collected from across the shower's
anticipated maxima very soon afterwards, which is the most complete
dataset of any kind (visual, video or radio) submitted directly to the
SPA so far. David found some, if not conclusive, evidence for a minor
early maximum around 05:20-05:30 UT on August 12, at about the time
predicted by Esko Lyytinen (see ENB 248, ),
set amongst good echo numbers on August 11-12 generally, through till
at least 13h UT on August 12. Of greatest interest though is that there
was an episode of particularly high radio meteor counts between 01h
-03h UT on August 13, roughly 12 to 13 hours later than the "normal"
peak was due.

Since midweek, the IMO's "live" Perseid results page (at: ) has been suggesting a visual
maximum around 01h-03h UT on August 13 too, perhaps with a lesser
peak between 02:30-04:30 UT on August 12 (ZHRs ~70-80), though
there were other minor rates-fluctuations on August 12 besides this, so
it may not have been altogether significant. Intriguingly, ZHR activity
was variable between ~60-90 throughout the whole of August 12,
including close to the expected "normal" maximum time. Highest
ZHRs in the IMO data were achieved from roughly 01:30-02:30 UT on
the 13th, at ~125-145, which if confirmed subsequently, would have
made this peak also notably stronger than the usual ~100. ZHRs were
above 100 from circa 01h-04h UT on August 12-13 from this
preliminary estimate.

Initial SPA reports have suggested many of the Perseids on August
12-13 were bright, perhaps brighter than usual, which might tally with
Esko's predictions that healthy proportions of such Perseids were
probable from the denser meteoroid stream filament the Earth seemed
likely to encounter around 05:30 on August 12. This could indicate the
filament was responsible for the August 12-13 event, instead of on
August 11-12, though if so, why the peak should have happened so
very much later than anticipated, by about 20-21 hours, is still unknown.

You can see graphs of David's radio data, plus more comments on how
the shower was seen - or more often wasn't - from Britain, on the SPA's
Observing Forum Perseids topic at:

Anyone with meteor results still to submit from July-August is invited to
send them to me as soon as possible please, to help determine better
exactly what happened with the Perseids this time. My e-mail address
is in all my Forum postings.

By Alastair McBeath, SPA Meteor Section Director

We are getting back to normal with updates to the SPA's Recent
Fireball Sightings webpage now, at:, following
all the problems earlier in 2008. This has notes and, where available,
Internet links to notably bright-meteor events seen from the British Isles
and places nearby, as reported to the Section from times away from the
major shower peaks. Early August brought quite a crop of single-
observer fireball reports, including ones on August 1-2 (01:11 UT, a
brilliant Perseid seen from Aberdeenshire), 2-3 (~22:20, from
Worcestershire), 5-6 (~21:00, from Ardnamurchan in Highland), 7-8
(~21:40, from Wiltshire) and 8-9 (02:19, another Perseid, from

Please remember that when you send in a fireball observation (a fireball
is a meteor that reaches at least magnitude -3), the minimum details I
need from you are:

1) Exactly where you were (name of the nearest town or village and
county in Britain, or your geographic latitude and longitude if elsewhere);

2) The date and timing of the event (please be sure to state whether this
was in clock time, currently BST in Britain, or GMT/UT, which is BST
minus one hour); and

3) Where the fireball started and ended in the sky, as accurately as
possible, or where the first and last points you could see of the trail
were if you didn't see the whole flight.

More advice and a fuller set of details to send are outlined on the
"Fireball Observing" page of the SPA website, at: .


Laboratory tests made on board the Phoenix Mars Lander have identified
water in a soil sample. With interesting results so far and the
spacecraft in good working order, NASA has announced that operational
funding for the mission will be extended by all of 5 weeks until
September 30. The soil sample came from a trench approximately two
inches deep. When the robotic arm first reached that depth, it hit a
hard layer of frozen soil. Two attempts to deliver samples of the icy
soil on days when fresh material was exposed were foiled when the
samples became stuck inside the scoop. Most of the material in the
most recent sample had been exposed to the air for 2 days, letting
some of the water in the sample evaporate and leaving the soil easier
to handle. Since landing on May 25, Phoenix has been studying soil
with a chemistry lab, a microscope, a conductivity probe and cameras.
Besides confirming the 2002 finding from orbit of ice near the surface
and deciphering the newly observed stickiness, the scientific team is
trying to determine whether the ice ever thaws enough to be available
for biological purposes and whether carbon-containing chemicals and
other raw materials for life are present.

University of California, Berkeley

Jupiter and Saturn have strange metallic cores, according to a new
study by researchers at Berkeley and London. The study concludes that
metallic helium is less rare than was previously thought, and is
produced under the kinds of conditions present at the centres of giant
gaseous planets, mixing with metallic hydrogen to form a liquid metal

The group studies pressures tens of millions of times greater than the
Earth's atmospheric pressure -- the sort of pressures obtaining at the
centres of Jupiter and Saturn, so-called gas giants that lack a solid
surface. The core of the Earth, which is small and dense compared to
the cores of gas giants, is at about 3.5 million times atmospheric
pressure. Pressures at Jupiter's core reach 70 million times the
Earth's atmospheric pressure, the planet's great size more than making
up for its low density. The cores of Jupiter and Saturn are thought
to be at 10,000 to 20,000 degrees Celsius. Most studies of materials
in gaseous planets have focussed on hydrogen because it is the
predominant element, both in those planets and in the Universe in
general, but the new research focussed on helium, the second-most-
abundant element, which comprises about 25% of the Universe by mass.
The scientists had to use theory to calculate the behaviour of helium
under pressures and temperatures that are altogether too high to
replicate in the laboratory; although the results could at best be
approximations, they closely matched experimental results for lower

Under terrestrial conditions, helium is a colourless, transparent,
electrically insulating gas, but the researchers found that at the
pressures and temperatures found at the centres of Jupiter and Saturn
helium turns into a liquid metal, like mercury. The finding was a
surprise, as scientists had supposed that high pressures and high
temperatures would make metallization of elements such as helium more
difficult, not easier. It was, however, recently discovered that
hydrogen becomes metallic at lower pressures than was previously


The spiral arms of many large galaxies do not start from the exact
centre but from the ends of a more or less straight 'bar' across the
nucleus. Astronomers found that, among more than 2,000 spiral
galaxies in a census made with the Hubble telescope, only 20% of
spirals had central bars 7 billion years ago, whereas 70% have them
now in the 'local Universe'. The recently forming bars are found
mostly in the small, low-mass galaxies, whereas among the most massive
galaxies the fraction of bars was the same in the past as it is today.
Astronomers already thought that evolution tends to be faster for more
massive galaxies, which form their stars early and fast and then fade
into red discs. Low-mass galaxies form stars at a slower pace, but
now we see that they also make their bars more slowly too. Our Milky
Way galaxy is a massive spiral, and recently evidence has been found
that it has a central bar that may well be like the bars seen in other
large galaxies in the Hubble survey.

Science Daily

Globular star clusters, dense assemblies of hundreds of thousands of
stars, contain some of the oldest surviving stars in the Universe.
A new international study of globular clusters outside our Milky Way
galaxy has found evidence that they are most likely to form in dense
regions, where star birth occurs at a rapid rate.

The nearest large cluster of galaxies is the Virgo cluster, which
includes more than 2000 galaxies and is about 54 million light-years
away. The Hubble telescope resolved the star clusters in 100 galaxies
of various sizes, shapes, and brightness -- even in faint, dwarf
galaxies. It was able to distinguish the globular clusters from stars
in our own galaxy and from background galaxies. Dwarf galaxies
closest to Virgo's crowded centre were found to contain more globular
clusters than those farther away. One seemingly very vague
interpretation of the difference is that the efficiency of star-
cluster formation depends on the environment. The giant elliptical
galaxy Messier 87 at the centre of the Virgo cluster of galaxies has
long been known to have a lot of globular star clusters. It has been
suggested that that galaxy may have acquired many of its clusters from
smaller galaxies that are being disrupted by, or merged with, M87.
That idea is supported by the fact that few or no globular clusters
have been found in galaxies within 130 000 light-years of M87.
(Compare that statement with what we just told you above, that "Dwarf
galaxies closest to Virgo's crowded centre were found to contain more
globular clusters than those farther away".) It is also supported by
spectroscopy, which has recently become possible, of the clusters.
Three-quarters -- not all -- of the clusters are deficient in heavy
elements, particularly iron, like those in dwarf galaxies near M87.

Yale University

When Yale astrophysicists enlisted public support in cataloguing
galaxies, they never expected the strange object that Hanny van Arkel
found in archived images of the night sky. The Dutch school-teacher,
a volunteer in the 'Galaxy Zoo' project that allows members of the
public to take part in astronomical research on-line, discovered a
so-far-unique object that some observers are calling a 'cosmic ghost'.
Van Arkel came across the image of a strange, gaseous object with
a hole in the centre while classifying images of galaxies on the web site. When she posted about the image,
it quickly became known as 'Hanny's Voorwerp' (Dutch for 'object')
on the Galaxy Zoo forum. Astronomers who run the site began to
investigate and soon realized that van Arkel might have found a new
class of astronomical object, a galactic-scale analogue of the light
echoes that are seen round novae and supernovae in our own galaxy.

The Voorwerp does not contain any stars. Rather, it is made entirely
of gas so hot -- about 10,000 C -- that the astronomers felt that it
had to be illuminated by something powerful. Since there was no
obvious source at hand in the Voorwerp itself, the team looked for a
source of illumination around the Voorwerp; the finger of suspicion
pointed to the 'nearby' galaxy IC 2497. The suggestion is that in the
recent past there was an enormously bright quasar in IC 2497. Because
of the vast scale of the galaxy and the Voorwerp, we are seeing the
Voorwerp as it was at a time when it was still brilliantly illuminated
by the quasar, even though the quasar appears from here to have shut
down some time in the past 100,000 years, and the galaxy's black hole
itself has gone quiet.


NASA plans to send people back to the Moon by 2020 and eventually to
set up a lunar base. A local supply of water would obviously be an
invaluable advantage to astronauts living there, but with no
atmosphere, and very large temperature swings between night and day,
most of the Moon's surface is a hostile place for water. There are,
however a few cold, dark places where frozen water might exist.
At the lunar poles, where the Sun is always low on the horizon, some
crater walls cast shadows that keep parts of the crater floors in
perpetual darkness. Temperatures there are about 40 degrees above
absolute zero, cold enough for ice to survive indefinitely.

Some time next summer, depending on the launch date, the booster
stage for NASA's LCROSS probe will be deliberately crashed into a
permanently shadowed lunar crater at 2.5 km/s, producing an explosion
equivalent to about a ton of TNT. Material will be blown out of the
crater into sunlight where any ice will vaporize and the H2O molecules
would then be split by ultraviolet light into H and OH. The other
half of LCROSS will watch what happens; mission planners hope that its
sensors will detect the spectrum of H20 in near-infrared light and
also an ultraviolet emission band of OH, and will quickly report the
results before itself crashing into the Moon four minutes later. The
explosion will probably be hidden from sight from the Earth by the
walls of the target crater, but the impact plume is expected to be
visible. In the sunlight the debris is expected to shine like a 6th-
to 8th-magnitude star and be visible in small telescopes.

The SPA Electronic News Bulletins are sponsored by the Open University.

Bulletin compiled by Clive Down

(c) 2008 the Society for Popular Astronomy

The Society for Popular Astronomy has been helping beginners to
amateur astronomy -- and more experienced observers -- for more than
50 years. If you are not a member then you may be missing something.
Membership rates are extremely reasonable, starting at just £16 a year
in the UK. You will receive our bright quarterly magazine Popular
Astronomy, regular printed News Circulars, help and advice in pursuing
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If science excites you or if you want to build on a career or existing
qualification, studying with the OU is a way forward. There is a
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Kevin Brown, SPA webmaster
My astro blogs.. | Practical Astronomy magazine

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