Monday, July 9: A quick trip to Alpha Centauri, and CAA’s Monthly General Membership Meeting

Photo: This wide-field view of the sky around the bright star Alpha Centauri was created from photographic images forming part of the Digitized Sky Survey 2. The star appears so big just because of the scattering of light by the telescope's optics as well as in the photographic emulsion. Alpha Centauri is the closest star system to the Solar System.

This wide-field view of the sky around the bright star Alpha Centauri was created from photographic images forming part of the Digitized Sky Survey 2. The star appears so big just because of the scattering of light by the telescope’s optics as well as in the photographic emulsion. Alpha Centauri is the closest star system to the Solar System. Credit: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2
Acknowledgement: Davide De Martin

Coming up on Monday, July 9 is the monthly meeting of the Cuyahoga Astronomical Association (CAA). The evening’s speaker will be Jay Reynolds, club member, research astronomer at Cleveland State University, and host of WKYC’s “In The Sky.” Jay will discuss how scientists are working now on a project to send high-speed probes to our Sun’s nearest neighboring star, with data results in less than 40 years of launch!

The CAA’s monthly meetings are held on the second Monday of every month (except December) at 7:30 PM at the Rocky River Nature Center; 24000 Valley Parkway; North Olmsted, Ohio, in the Cleveland Metroparks.

Following the presentation and a brief social break, the club will conduct its membership business meeting.

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ESO Announcement: First confirmed image of a newborn exoplanet

Image: This spectacular image from the SPHERE instrument on ESO's Very Large Telescope is the first clear image of a planet caught in the very act of formation around the dwarf star PDS 70. The planet stands clearly out, visible as a bright point to the right of the centre of the image, which is blacked out by the coronagraph mask used to block the blinding light of the central star. Credit: ESO/A. Müller et al.

This spectacular image from the SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope is the first clear image of a planet caught in the very act of formation around the dwarf star PDS 70. The planet stands clearly out, visible as a bright point to the right of the center of the image, which is blacked out by the coronagraph mask used to block the blinding light of the central star. Credit: ESO/A. Müller et al.

Astronomers led by a group at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany have captured a spectacular snapshot of planetary formation around the young dwarf star PDS 70. By using the SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) — one of the most powerful planet-hunting instruments in existence — the international team has made the first robust detection of a young planet, named PDS 70b, cleaving a path through the planet-forming material surrounding the young star.

The SPHERE instrument also enabled the team to measure the brightness of the planet at different wavelengths, which allowed properties of its atmosphere to be deduced.

The planet stands out very clearly in the new observations, visible as a bright point to the right of the blackened center of the image. It is located roughly three billion kilometers from the central star, roughly equivalent to the distance between Uranus and the Sun. The analysis shows that PDS 70b is a giant gas planet with a mass a few times that of Jupiter. The planet’s surface has a temperature of around 1000°C, making it much hotter than any planet in our own Solar System.

The dark region at the center of the image is due to a coronagraph, a mask which blocks the blinding light of the central star and allows astronomers to detect its much fainter disc and planetary companion. Without this mask, the faint light from the planet would be utterly overwhelmed by the intense brightness of PDS 70.

“These discs around young stars are the birthplaces of planets, but so far only a handful of observations have detected hints of baby planets in them,” explains Miriam Keppler, who lead the team behind the discovery of PDS 70’s still-forming planet. “The problem is that until now, most of these planet candidates could just have been features in the disc.”

The discovery of PDS 70’s young companion is an exciting scientific result that has already merited further investigation. A second team, involving many of the same astronomers as the discovery team, including Keppler, has in the past months followed up the initial observations to investigate PDS 70’s fledgling planetary companion in more detail.
They not only made the spectacularly clear image of the planet shown here, but were even able to obtain a spectrum of the planet. Analysis of this spectrum indicated that its atmosphere is cloudy.

Image: This chart shows the southern constellation of Centaurus and marks most of the stars visible to the unaided eye on a clear dark night.  The dwarf star PDS 70 is marked with a red circle. Credit: ESO, IAU and Sky & Telescope

This chart shows the southern constellation of Centaurus and marks most of the stars visible to the unaided eye on a clear dark night.  The dwarf star PDS 70 is marked with a red circle. Credit: ESO, IAU and Sky & Telescope

PDS 70’s planetary companion has sculpted a transition disc — a protoplanetary disc with a giant “hole” in the center. These inner gaps have been known about for decades and it has been speculated that they were produced by disc-planet interaction. Now we can see the planet for the first time.

“Keppler’s results give us a new window onto the complex and poorly-understood early stages of planetary evolution,” comments André Müller, leader of the second team to investigate the young planet. “We needed to observe a planet in a young star’s disc to really understand the processes behind planet formation.” By determining the planet’s atmospheric and physical properties, the astronomers are able to test theoretical models of planet formation.

This glimpse of the dust-shrouded birth of a planet was only possible thanks to the impressive technological capabilities of ESO’s SPHERE instrument, which studies exoplanets and discs around nearby stars using a technique known as high-contrast imaging — a challenging feat. Even when blocking the light from a star with a coronagraph, SPHERE still has to use cleverly devised observing strategies and data processing techniques to filter out the signal of the faint planetary companions around bright young stars at multiple wavelengths and epochs.

Thomas Henning, director at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy and leader of the teams, summarizes the scientific adventure: “After more than a decade of enormous efforts to build this high-tech machine, now SPHERE enables us to reap the harvest with the discovery of baby planets!”

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CAA at Lakewood Summer Solstice Celebration

Photo: After sunset scopes pointed skyward and offered views of planets Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn. Photo by James Guilford.

After sunset scopes pointed skyward and offered views of planets Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn. Lakewood Solstice Celebration 2016. Credit: James Guilford.

The Cuyahoga Astronomical Association (CAA) will, once again, be a major activity at the city of Lakewood’s annual Summer Solstice Celebration. The event takes place in Lakewood Park and on the park’s lakefront Solstice Steps feature on Thursday, June 21 from 6:00 to 10:30 PM.

Operating within the constraints of sunlight and twilight viewing conditions, club members will set up their telescopes and offer public viewing of Sun, Moon, and planets. Planets Venus and Jupiter will be readily visible, given clear skies, as will be the Waxing Gibbous Moon. Some fainter objects may be viewed later.

CAA member Jay Reynolds is coordinating the club’s participation with organizers of the very popular celebration.

An event flyer is available here: Lakewood Summer Solstice Celebration

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June 11’s monthly meeting and upcoming programs

Coming up on Monday, June 11 is the monthly meeting of the Cuyahoga Astronomical Association (CAA). The evening’s program will feature several members showing their favorite telescopes and what they appreciate about them and is appropriately entitled, “Telescope Show and Tell.”

The CAA’s monthly meetings are held on the second Monday of every month (except December) at 7:30 PM at the Rocky River Nature Center; 24000 Valley Parkway; North Olmsted, Ohio, in the Cleveland Metroparks.

Following the presentation and a brief social break, the club will conduct its membership business meeting.

Here is a list of programs scheduled to take place at upcoming meetings of the CAA:

June 11, 2018
“Telescope Show and Tell”
Speaker: Members of the Cuyahoga Astronomical Association
Tonight, various club members will display their favorite telescopes and explain why, how, and how much!”

July 9, 2018
“Journey to Another Solar System”
Speaker: Jay Reynolds, Club member and Research Astronomer at Cleveland State University
Research astronomer and host of WKYC’s “In The Sky,” Jay Reynolds will discuss how scientists are working now on a project to send high-speed probes to our nearest neighboring star, with data results in less than 40 years of launch! (This is a make-up talk originally scheduled for January that did not take place due to illness!)

August 13, 2018
“American Crewed Space Missions: 2018”
Speaker: Tom Benson, Retired NASA Aerospace Engineer
On July 8, 2011 the last Space Shuttle mission was launched from Cape Canaveral. For the last six years, the United States has paid the Russian Space Agency to deliver crew members to the International Space Station (ISS). That process is about to end as Americans will once again ride on American spacecraft launched from American soil! The Commercial Crew Program of NASA has contracted with Space-X and Boeing to each develop spacecraft that can deliver and return astronauts to the ISS. The first flights are scheduled for this year. Tom Benson, retired from NASA Glenn, will report on these missions and share with us any breaking news from the high frontier!

September 10, 2018
“Moon Bases”
Speaker: Bryan A. Paleszewski, NASA Engineer
NASA Engineer Bryan Palaszewski will bring us close to home and discuss plans and ideas for humans to “live off the land,” i.e. establish a permanent base on the surface of our nearest solar system neighbor, the Moon!

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Ancient organic material, mysterious methane on Mars

This low-angle self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows the vehicle at the site from which it reached down to drill into a rock target called "Buckskin" on lower Mount Sharp. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

This low-angle self-portrait of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows the vehicle at the site from which it reached down to drill into a rock target called “Buckskin” on lower Mount Sharp. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

From a NASA News Release

NASA’s Curiosity rover has found new evidence preserved in rocks on Mars that suggests the planet could have supported ancient life, as well as new evidence in the Martian atmosphere that relates to the search for current life on the Red Planet. While not necessarily evidence of life itself, these findings are a good sign for future missions exploring the planet’s surface and subsurface.

The new findings – “tough” organic molecules in three-billion-year-old sedimentary rocks near the surface, as well as seasonal variations in the levels of methane in the atmosphere – appear in the June 8 edition of the journal Science.

Organic molecules contain carbon and hydrogen, and also may include oxygen, nitrogen and other elements. While commonly associated with life, organic molecules also can be created by non-biological processes and are not necessarily indicators of life.

“With these new findings, Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, in Washington. “I’m confident that our ongoing and planned missions will unlock even more breathtaking discoveries on the Red Planet.”

“Curiosity has not determined the source of the organic molecules,” said Jen Eigenbrode of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who is lead author of one of the two new Science papers. “Whether it holds a record of ancient life, was food for life, or has existed in the absence of life, organic matter in Martian materials holds chemical clues to planetary conditions and processes.”

Although the surface of Mars is inhospitable today, there is clear evidence that in the distant past, the Martian climate allowed liquid water – an essential ingredient for life as we know it – to pool at the surface. Data from Curiosity reveal that billions of years ago, a water lake inside Gale Crater held all the ingredients necessary for life, including chemical building blocks and energy sources.

“The Martian surface is exposed to radiation from space. Both radiation and harsh chemicals break down organic matter,” said Eigenbrode. “Finding ancient organic molecules in the top five centimeters of rock that was deposited when Mars may have been habitable, bodes well for us to learn the story of organic molecules on Mars with future missions that will drill deeper.”

Seasonal Methane Releases

In the second paper, scientists describe the discovery of seasonal variations in methane in the Martian atmosphere over the course of nearly three Mars years, which is almost six Earth years. This variation was detected by Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite.

Water-rock chemistry might have generated the methane, but scientists cannot rule out the possibility of biological origins. Methane previously had been detected in Mars’ atmosphere in large, unpredictable plumes. This new result shows that low levels of methane within Gale Crater repeatedly peak in warm, summer months and drop in the winter every year.

“This is the first time we’ve seen something repeatable in the methane story, so it offers us a handle in understanding it,” said Chris Webster of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, lead author of the second paper. “This is all possible because of Curiosity’s longevity. The long duration has allowed us to see the patterns in this seasonal ‘breathing.'”

Finding Organic Molecules

To identify organic material in the Martian soil, Curiosity drilled into sedimentary rocks known as mudstone from four areas in Gale Crater. This mudstone gradually formed billions of years ago from silt that accumulated at the bottom of the ancient lake. The rock samples were analyzed by SAM, which uses an oven to heat the samples (in excess of 900 degrees Fahrenheit, or 500 degrees Celsius) to release organic molecules from the powdered rock.

SAM measured small organic molecules that came off the mudstone sample – fragments of larger organic molecules that don’t vaporize easily. Some of these fragments contain sulfur, which could have helped preserve them in the same way sulfur is used to make car tires more durable, according to Eigenbrode.

The results also indicate organic carbon concentrations on the order of 10 parts per million or more. This is close to the amount observed in Martian meteorites and about 100 times greater than prior detections of organic carbon on Mars’ surface. Some of the molecules identified include thiophenes, benzene, toluene, and small carbon chains, such as propane or butene.

In 2013, SAM detected some organic molecules containing chlorine in rocks at the deepest point in the crater. This new discovery builds on the inventory of molecules detected in the ancient lake sediments on Mars and helps explains why they were preserved.

Finding methane in the atmosphere and ancient carbon preserved on the surface gives scientists confidence that NASA’s Mars 2020 rover and ESA’s (European Space Agency’s) ExoMars rover will find even more organics, both on the surface and in the shallow subsurface.

These results also inform scientists’ decisions as they work to find answers to questions concerning the possibility of life on Mars.

“Are there signs of life on Mars?” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, at NASA Headquarters. “We don’t know, but these results tell us we are on the right track.”

This work was funded by NASA’s Mars Exploration Program for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) in Washington. Goddard provided the SAM instrument. JPL built the rover and manages the project for SMD.

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Star Trails and Space Station Track

Photo: Star trails around Polaris are interrupted by a pass of the International Space Station. Photo by Alan Studt.

Star trails around Polaris are interrupted by a pass of the International Space Station. Photo by Alan Studt.

On a seemingly rare clear night recently in Northeastern Ohio, Cuyahoga Astronomical Association (CAA) member, photographer Alan Studt traveled to Hinckley Lake for a bit of stargazing. CAA members can access Cleveland Metroparks for after-hours astronomy.

“Gale and I watched the nice ISS pass on Thursday night. Since it was clear Friday night we went to Hinckley Lake Reservation and sat by the lake while I shot a star trail. Nice surprise – the ISS flew by and photo-bombed the star trail!” — Alan Studt

Technical Items:

  • 102 shots, 20 seconds each
  • Tamron 15-30mm @ 15mm, f2.8
  • ISO 200, Nikon D810
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Monthly Membership Meeting Monday May 14

The Cuyahoga Astronomical Association (CAA) will conduct its monthly membership meeting on Monday, May 14, beginning at 7:30 PM. The evening’s program is entitled “The Inflationary Hot Big Bang Theory.” The universe is 13.7 billion years old. Our best current understanding of the universe’s origin is called the Big Bang Theory. GaryKader, CAA member and director of the Burrell Memorial Observatory at Baldwin Wallace University, will present a lecture on the science and history of the Big Bang Theory, taking us back to within a trillionth of a second after that beginning.

Following the presentation and a brief social break, the club will conduct its membership business meeting.

Our monthly meetings are held on the second Monday of every month (except December) at 7:30 PM at the Rocky River Nature Center; 24000 Valley Parkway; North Olmsted, Ohio, in the Cleveland Metroparks.

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