January 14 Meeting: New Horizons at Ultima Thule

Image: Artist's impression of the New Horizons spacecraft encountering a Kuiper Belt Object.
Artist’s impression of the New Horizons spacecraft encountering a Kuiper Belt Object. Credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute (JHUAPL/SwRI)

Kai Getrost, CAA member and member of the NASA MU69 Occultation Team, will be program presenter at the January 14 meeting of the Cuyahoga Astronomical Association (CAA). Getrost will discuss the latest news about what we’ve learned, how we got there, and how he was involved in the mission on three science trips to South America.

This image taken by the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) is the most detailed of Ultima Thule returned so far by the New Horizons spacecraft. It was taken at 5:01 Universal Time on January 1, 2019, just 30 minutes before closest approach from a range of 18,000 miles (28,000 kilometers), with an original scale of 730 feet (140 meters) per pixel. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
This image taken by the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) is the most detailed of Ultima Thule returned so far by the New Horizons spacecraft. It was taken at 5:01 Universal Time on January 1, 2019, just 30 minutes before closest approach from a range of 18,000 miles (28,000 kilometers), with an original scale of 730 feet (140 meters) per pixel. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

The successful January 1 flyby of Kuiper Belt Object 2014 MU69/Ultima Thule came after extensive work by the scientists and technicians running the New Horizons mission. Largely unknown, invisible to the public, were efforts on the part of others to accurately locate the spacecraft’s target of opportunity subsequent to Pluto. Teams of astronomers were dispatched with portable telescopes and computers to observe and time occultations of stars by the invisible (it’s only about 20 miles long and is 4 billion miles away) target object; the exact location and improved orbital information of Ultima Thule was derived from those observations. Occultation refers to the moment the light from a distant star is blocked by an object nearer the observer.

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. Meeting programs are open to the public.

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

Upcoming programs….

The Cuyahoga Astronomical Association (CAA) does not hold a General Meeting in December but that doesn’t mean nothing is happening over the winter months! Here are descriptions of programs planned for the CAA’s upcoming meetings:

January 8, 2018
“Journey to Another Solar System!”
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 star (beyond our own Sun), with data results in less than 40 years of launch!

February 12, 2018
“Parallax: How we measure the distance from us to the stars!”
Club member and self-professed astronomy nerd Tim Campbell will follow Jay Reynolds’s January presentation by showing how through history, humans used cleverness, a basic principle of vision, and a succession of instruments to go from calculating the throwing distance to food to calculating just how far away those little dots in the nighttime sky really are!

March 12, 2018
“Astrophotography and other Cool Pictures”
Club members Alan and Gale Studt will present photos featuring starry night landscapes, panoramas, and star trails blended with earthly landscapes! For the technically curious, Alan will go over his gear and basic procedures. Plus music and more!

May 14, 2018
“The Inflationary Hot Big Bang Theory”
The universe is 13.7 billion years old and our best current understanding of the its origin is called the Big Bang Theory. Gary Kader, 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.

June 11, 2018
“Telescope Show and Tell”
Tonight various club members will display their favorite telescopes and explain why, how, and “how much!”

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.

Clouds, clouds, go away!

Photo: Panoramic view of Letha House Park Lake. Photo by James Guilford
August 26: Day’s End – Letha House Park – Photo by James Guilford

After a day featuring fair skies, the evening saw a layer of clouds slide in messing with our Public Night. The slender crescent Moon slowly disappeared into a light smudge. Later, a few stars showed up overhead but, overall, not much to look at. We hope for better weather on September 9, at 8:00 PM when we will host our next Public Night at Letha House Park and our Observatory.

Orion Nebula’s star formation happening in bursts, faster than expected 

OmegaCAM — the wide-field optical camera on ESO’s VLT Survey Telescope (VST) — has captured the spectacular Orion Nebula and its associated cluster of young stars in great detail, producing a beautiful new image. This object is one of the closest stellar nurseries for both low and high-mass stars, at a distance of about 1,350 light-years.

Using new observations from ESO’s VLT Survey Telescope, astronomers have discovered three different populations of young stars within the Orion Nebula Cluster. This unexpected discovery adds very valuable new insights for the understanding of how such clusters form. It suggests that star formation might proceed in bursts, where each burst occurs on a much faster time-scale than previously thought.

OmegaCAM — the wide-field optical camera on ESO’s VLT Survey Telescope (VST) — has captured the spectacular Orion Nebula and its associated cluster of young stars in great detail, producing a beautiful new image. This object is one of the closest stellar nurseries for both low and high-mass stars, at a distance of about 1350 light-years.

But this is more than just a pretty picture. A team led by ESO astronomer Giacomo Beccari has used these data of unparallelled quality to precisely measure the brightness and colours of all the stars in the Orion Nebula Cluster. These measurements allowed the astronomers to determine the mass and ages of the stars. To their surprise, the data revealed three different sequences of potentially different ages.

“Looking at the data for the first time was one of those ‘Wow!’ moments that happen only once or twice in an astronomer’s lifetime,” says Beccari, lead ­author of the paper presenting the results. “The incredible quality of the OmegaCAM images revealed without any doubt that we were seeing three distinct populations of stars in the central parts of Orion.”

Monika Petr-Gotzens, co-author and also based at ESO Garching, continues, “This is an important result. What we are witnessing is that the stars of a cluster at the beginning of their lives didn’t form altogether simultaneously. This may mean that our understanding of how stars form in clusters needs to be modified.”

The astronomers looked carefully at the possibility that instead of indicating different ages, the different brightnesses and colours of some of the stars were due to hidden companion stars, which would make the stars appear brighter and redder than they really were. But this idea would imply quite unusual properties of the pairs, which have never before been observed. Other measurements of the stars, such as their rotation speeds and spectra, also indicated that they must have different ages.

“Although we cannot yet formally disprove the possibility that these stars are binaries, it seems much more natural to accept that what we see are three generations of stars that formed in succession, within less than three million years,” concludes Beccari.

The new results strongly suggest that star formation in the Orion Nebula Cluster is proceeding in bursts, and more quickly than had been previously thought.

Seeing Double at CAA’s July meeting

The July 2017 Membership Meeting of the Cuyahoga Astronomical Association (CAA) will take place Monday, July 10, at 7:30 PM.

Gary Kader, CAA member and Director of the Burrell Observatory of Baldwin Wallace University, will present — SEEING DOUBLE: FINDING AND OBSERVING DOUBLE STARS FOR FUN AND SCIENCE. About half the stars in the night sky are actually multiple stars. Some are visible as two stars in a telescope, those are visual binaries, while others are determined from analyzing their light. Many show contrasting colors, which make them fun to observe. Learn all about double stars in this interesting presentation.

CAA’s monthly meetings take place at the Rocky River Nature Center of the Cleveland Metroparks, 24000 Valley Parkway, North Olmsted. The program begins at 7:30 PM, followed by a social break which is followed, in turn, by a business meeting.

Non-members are welcome to attend the evening’s program!

February membership meeting

The monthly meeting of the Cuyahoga Astronomical Association will take place Monday night (Feb. 13). Our speaker at 7:30 PM will be NASA research scientist Bryan Palaszewski, who will make a presentation entitled: “NASA and the Hubble Space Telescope.” Non-members are welcome!

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

Best views yet

This image shows a region in Saturn’s outer B ring. NASA’s Cassini spacecraft viewed this area at a level of detail twice as high as it had ever been observed before. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Newly released images showcase the incredible closeness with which NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, now in its “Ring-Grazing” orbits phase, is observing Saturn’s dazzling rings of icy debris.

The views are some of the closest-ever images of the outer parts of the main rings, giving scientists an eagerly awaited opportunity to observe features with names like “straw” and “propellers.” Although Cassini saw these features earlier in the mission, the spacecraft’s current, special orbits are now providing opportunities to see them in greater detail. The new images resolve details as small as 0.3 miles (550 meters), which is on the scale of Earth’s tallest buildings.

Cassini is now about halfway through its penultimate mission phase — 20 orbits that dive past the outer edge of the main ring system. The ring-grazing orbits began last November, and will continue until late April, when Cassini begins its grand finale. During the 22 finale orbits, Cassini will repeatedly plunge through the gap between the rings and Saturn. The first finale plunge is scheduled for April 26.

For now, the veteran spacecraft is shooting past the outer edges of the rings every week, gathering some of its best images of the rings and moons. Already Cassini has sent back the closest-ever views of small moons Daphnis and Pandora.

Some of the structures seen in recent Cassini images have not been visible at this level of detail since the spacecraft arrived at Saturn in mid-2004. At that time, fine details like straw and propellers — which are caused by clumping ring particles and small, embedded moonlets, respectively — had never been seen before. (Although propellers were present in Cassini’s arrival images, they were actually discovered in later analysis, the following year.)

Cassini came a bit closer to the rings during its arrival at Saturn, but the quality of those arrival images (examples: 1, 2, 3) was not as high as in the new views. Those precious few observations only looked out on the backlit side of the rings, and the team chose short exposure times to minimize smearing due to Cassini’s fast motion as it vaulted over the ring plane. This resulted in images that were scientifically stunning, but somewhat dark and noisy.

In contrast, the close views Cassini has begun capturing in its ring-grazing orbits (and soon will capture in its Grand Finale phase) are taking in both the backlit and sunlit side of the rings. Instead of just one brief pass lasting a few hours, Cassini is making several dozen passes during these final months.

“As the person who planned those initial orbit-insertion ring images — which remained our most detailed views of the rings for the past 13 years — I am taken aback by how vastly improved are the details in this new collection,” said Cassini Imaging Team Lead Carolyn Porco, of Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colorado. “How fitting it is that we should go out with the best views of Saturn’s rings we’ve ever collected.”