Hubble’s latest portrait of the “Lord of the Rings”

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope captured this image of Saturn on July 4, 2020. Two of Saturn’s icy moons are clearly visible in this exposure: Mimas at right, and Enceladus at bottom. This image is taken as part of the Outer Planets Atmospheres Legacy (OPAL) project. OPAL is helping scientists understand the atmospheric dynamics and evolution of our solar system’s gas giant planets. In Saturn’s case, astronomers continue tracking shifting weather patterns and storms. Credits: NASA, ESA, A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center), M.H. Wong (University of California, Berkeley), and the OPAL Team

Saturn is truly the lord of the rings in this latest portrait from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, captured on July 4, 2020, when the opulent giant world was 839 million miles from Earth. This new Saturn image was taken during summer in the planet’s northern hemisphere.

Hubble found a number of small atmospheric storms. These are transient features that appear to come and go with each yearly Hubble observation. The banding in the northern hemisphere remains pronounced as seen in Hubble’s 2019 observations, with several bands slightly changing color from year to year. The ringed planet’s atmosphere is mostly hydrogen and helium with traces of ammonia, methane, water vapor, and hydrocarbons that give it a yellowish-brown color.

Hubble photographed a slight reddish haze over the northern hemisphere in this color composite. This may be due to heating from increased sunlight, which could either change the atmospheric circulation or perhaps remove ices from aerosols in the atmosphere. Another theory is that the increased sunlight in the summer months is changing the amounts of photochemical haze produced. “It’s amazing that even over a few years, we’re seeing seasonal changes on Saturn,” said lead investigator Amy Simon of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Conversely, the just-now-visible south pole has a blue hue, reflecting changes in Saturn’s winter hemisphere.

Hubble’s sharp view resolves the finely etched concentric ring structure. The rings are mostly made of pieces of ice, with sizes ranging from tiny grains to giant boulders. Just how and when the rings formed remains one of our solar system’s biggest mysteries. Conventional wisdom is that they are as old as the planet, over 4 billion years. But because the rings are so bright – like freshly fallen snow – a competing theory is that they may have formed during the age of the dinosaurs. Many astronomers agree that there is no satisfactory theory that explains how rings could have formed within just the past few hundred million years. “However, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft measurements of tiny grains raining into Saturn’s atmosphere suggest the rings can only last for 300 million more years, which is one of the arguments for a young age of the ring system,” said team member Michael Wong of the University of California, Berkeley.

Two of Saturn’s icy moons are clearly visible in this exposure: Mimas at right, and Enceladus at bottom.

This image is taken as part of the Outer Planets Atmospheres Legacy (OPAL) project. OPAL is helping scientists understand the atmospheric dynamics and evolution of our solar system’s gas giant planets. In Saturn’s case, astronomers continue tracking shifting weather patterns and storms.

Bidding farewell to a fine comet

Fiber-optic star trails, fireflies, the ISS & NEOWISE. July 17, 2020. This photo is a 52-minute star trail made from 526 consecutive shots, each six seconds long, ISO 800, 15mm at f/2.8, Nikon D810. Photo by Alan Studt.

Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) was the finest comet to grace the skies of the Northern Hemisphere in quite some years. Amateur astronomers and photographers the world over made fascinating observations and beautiful images of the comet and its surprisingly long tail. By July 5, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe had captured an image of the comet, from which astronomers also estimated the diameter of the comet nucleus at approximately 5 km. or about three miles; that’s a reasonably large size but around average for a comet. The large nucleus offered plenty of volatile materials for the Sun to stir into tail formation.

On July 23 the comet reached perigee with Earth and is now speeding toward the outer Solar System, not to revisit the inner planetary neighborhood for several thousands of years. So, though relatively near Earth the object is fading fast. Lately astronomers and astrophotographers have been grabbing the last views they will have of C/2020 F3 before it fades to obscurity.

Here are some photos made by members of the Cuyahoga Astronomical Association (CAA) as a cometary farewell of sorts:

C/2020 F3 NEOWISE as viewed from Veteran’s Memorial Park in Avon Lake just before 11 p.m., July 24, 2020. Photo by Alan Studt.

Alan Studt’s lovely portrait of the comet shows its tails remain, if faded, long and expansive. He wrote, “Beautiful night by the lake last night. Took these at Veteran’s Memorial Park in Avon Lake just before 11 p.m. Pretty large group of people hanging out. The comet was definitely much dimmer than the previous Friday.”

Technical Information: Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, on a Nikon D850.
The comet image is made from 14 shots (2.5 seconds, ISO 10,000, at 200mm, f/2.8). Stacked in Deep Sky Stacker & post processed in Lightroom and Photoshop. Seventy-five shots but got the best star field alignment using only 14 shots. Also used dark & flat frames.
C/2020 F3 NEOWISE as viewed from Letha House Park in Medina County, Ohio, at 10:36 p.m. July 24, 2020. Photo by James Guilford.

James Guilford was at Letha House Park, July 24, attempting to record detailed images of the comet nucleus and close tail. The green coloration of the comet was a surprise to him, even after reading the observations of others. “All of my comet shots Friday night show a green nucleus,” Guilford said, “and it grew brighter as I processed the images later. I’d have liked to have picked up more of the tail but, given the circumstances, I’m pretty happy with what I got.” Both he and other Letha House Park observers could see a green tint by eye through telescopes. He and others also report the comet was barely within the range of eyesight but only at its highest above the horizon and only via averted vision.

Technical Information: Canon EOS 6D Mk. 2, at prime focus of 1800mm FL Cassegrain telescope, eight light exposures plus darks, ISO 1250, 15 seconds per exposure, stacked in Starry Sky Stacker, processed in Photoshop.

C/2020 F3 NEOWISE nearly lost amongst the stars. Photo by Jon Salontay.

Jon Salontay also photographed the comet that Friday. Above we see how it is nearly lost, even to the camera, amongst the stars. Technical Info.: Time – 11:32 p.m., Canon T5i with 18-75mm zoom lens at 18 mm, exposure 30 seconds at F/5.6, ISO 800. Brightness & Contrast adjusted.

C/2020 F3 NEOWISE via telescope. Photo by Jon Salontay.

Salontay then turned his telescope on the “dirty snowball.” Technical Info.: Time – 12:13 a.m., July 25. Celestron 8-inch SCT on Advanced VX Mount, Canon T5i, 15 seconds, ISO 1600. No out-of-camera adjustment.

He wrote, “Although I’ll try to follow it telescopically over the next month, how about another comet before the year is out? It’s a lot of fun.”

Meanwhile, closer to Earth …

Studt_Crescent Moon
Our Moon. Day 27 of the Lunar cycle – 10% illumination. Photo by Alan Studt.

The eyes of stargazers have largely been focused on comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) of late but there are other dazzling sights the cosmos offers; among them is Earth’s Moon.

CAA member Alan Studt has been pursuing a project to photograph — as possible — Moon every day through its cycle of phases. He has captured most phases thus far. At the time of this writing, Luna was in her waning crescent phase with the sliver of lighted disk growing slimmer by the day. The crescent phases offer dramatic views of Moon due to low-angle sunlight casting longer shadows from lunar surface features.

Above is our Moon seen the morning of July 17, 2020, day 27 of the Lunar cycle – 10% illumination – 394,051.09 km away. Studt’s technicals: Four shots stitched, Nikon D850, 4400mm, f/20, ISO 2000, 1/80th sec.

Below is Moon accompanied by planet Venus, accentuated by sunrise-tinted thin clouds. Settings: Nikon D850, 350mm, F/5.6, ISO 250, 1/100th sec.

Studt Crescent Moon & Venus
The 27-day-old Moon and planet Venus float in sunrise-tinted clouds. Photo by Alan Studt.

Charles Grace dies at age 94

Charles H. Grace, 1926 – 2020

Charles Henry Grace, 94, died peacefully in his sleep of natural causes on July 14, 2020, at his home in Lakewood, Ohio. Charles was a prominent figure in the Cuyahoga Astronomical Association (CAA) and an honorary Life Member.

Born Feb. 20, 1926, in Dayton, Ohio, he was the second of three sons to John Wesley Grace and Esther Wilkening Grace. He and his late brothers, Nelson and Donald, all enjoyed long, productive lives, with each living into his nineties.

Charles was a bit of a Renaissance man: a scholar, engineer, lawyer, inventor, musician, author, amateur astronomer, and lover of classical music, language and poetry. In fact, he embodied his favorite poem, “Invictus” by 19th century English poet William Ernest Henley, which concludes with: “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” Invictus, which means “unconquerable” or “undefeated” in Latin, is about courage in the face of death, and holding on to one’s own dignity despite the indignities life places before us.

Charles, who still could recite the entire poem in his final months, did just that, keeping his wit and eternal optimism even while confronted with failing eyesight, hearing, and overall health.

He earned a doctoral degree in electrical engineering from Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh. He seldom used the “Dr.” title he had earned, however, since he considered it pretentious. He founded his own company, Grace Electronics, in Cleveland, where he developed a photometer that measured the intensity of light and was used in the U.S. space program.

A disciplined goal-setter, he placed a triangular wooden carving on his desk that stated: “Plan the Work & Work the Plan.”

Always a student, he employed an extensive collection of handwritten flashcards to study for the bar exam at home at night while running his company. He passed the bar and added a juris doctorate degree from Cleveland State University to his electronics career.

Leveraging his engineering, electronics and legal knowledge, he then transitioned into law full time and rose to serve as general patent counsel for the multinational industrial conglomerate Eaton Corp. for many years. He ran their European law offices in the late 1970s, stationed in London, England, before returning to the U.S. in 1981 to oversee Eaton’s mid-U.S. law offices.

Charles has patented inventions, including a self-tuning electronic saxophone, and in August 2010, at the age of 84, self-published a book entitled Astronomy: Selected Topics. As a lover of astronomy, he wrote a monthly article called “Looking Up” in the CAA’s newsletter, “The Observer”, where he explained astronomical subjects in everyday language. He was the author of the CAA’s club By-Laws.

In addition to the astronomy club, he was a member of many intellectual groups, including Mensa, Rotary, Socrates, and an exclusive men’s book club, as well as many church clubs. He was a long-time, active member of the West Shore Unitarian Universalist Church in Rocky River, Ohio, and considered many fellow parishioners there to be his second family.

Charles for more than a quarter century was married to his beloved Marian E. (Banfer) Grace, who passed away in 1991 at age 67. They are survived by their three children: Kathy (Charlie Vaughn); Linda (Joseph Arney); and Bob (Gabriela Ferreira), who all now live in Florida.

Later in life, Charles was partners first with Patty Peters, who passed away in 2010 at age 86, and then with Margery Ventresca, who preceded him in death by eight months.

Charles always enjoyed the companionship of witty people and kept a social calendar that would exhaust someone half his age. He hosted many parties for friends at his condo in Winton Place, on Lakewood’s Gold Coast, overlooking Lake Erie and the Cleveland skyline. These gatherings typically included guest participation activities, musical entertainment, poem readings, dinner invocations, and the like.

In the final year of his life, despite his various daily hardships, he was always the gentleman, and he was particularly grateful for the kind, attentive assistance (and delicious, home-cooked meals) provided by the caregivers at Daughters With Degrees. May we all share his thirst for knowledge and self-improvement.

In lieu of flowers, feel free to make a donation in the name of Charles H. Grace to the Case Western Reserve University Alumni Case Fund, the SmileTrain, or to the charity of your choice.