CME on its way though aim is off a bit

Photo: Sunspot group AR1476, May 2012, by Jay Reynolds.
AR 1476 as photographed May 10 through the clouds by Jay Reynolds.

Sunspot group AR1476 finally spit out a coronal mass ejection (CME) though perhaps a bit late for a direct shot at Earth. The active region has been the focus of much attention from solar-interested scientists and amateur astronomers of every ilk. The huge grouping is rotating away from the center of the Sun’s disk and will soon pass over its limb. In the mean time, clouds and inclement weather are moving into the Northeastern Ohio area, obscuring the fascinating markings … visible to the unaided (but properly-protected) eye.

SpaceWeather.com reports: “On May 11th at 23:54 UT, a coronal mass ejection raced away from the sun faster than 1000 km/s. The fast-moving cloud will deliver a glancing blow to Earth’s magnetic field on May 14th around 14:30 UT, according to a revised forecast track prepared by analysts at the Goddard Space Weather Lab. Mars is also in the line of fire.”

Photo Notes: AR 1476 as photographed through the clouds May 10, 2012, by Jay Reynolds who was birding when lake effect clouds reduced the brightness enough to get this photo. Canon 400mm telephoto, 1/1,250sec., f/13. Extreme caution is warranted when photographing the Sun. A clearing in the clouds or a hole in a solar filter can instantly and permanently damage the eyes.

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Here comes the Sun(spots)

Photo: Sunspot Group by Christopher Christe.
Sunspot group AR1476 via telescope & smartphone by Christopher Christe

A string of clear-sky days has allowed amateur astronomers to get a good look at a string of sunspots. AR1476 was rotating towards the center of the Solar disk on Thursday, May 10, when CAA member Christopher Christe aimed his telescope (a six-inch Newtonian) for a look. Protected using a Baader solar filter, Chris could clearly see the huge sunspot group and, holding the lens of his camera-equipped smartphone to the eyepiece, shot a photo. As smartphone cameras become more common and continue to improve, we are seeing them employed in astrophotography more often.

Today (May 11) AR1476 was aimed squarely at Earth. SpaceWeather.com made the following comments: “NOAA forecasters estimate a 75% chance of M-class solar flares and a 20% chance of X-flares during the next 24 hours. Any eruptions are likely to be geoeffective because the source, sunspot AR1476, is directly facing our planet.”

Twilight scene: Orion, Venus, and the ISS

Photo: Long trail of the International Space Station in the evening sky. By Bruce Lane.
Trail of the International Space Station in the evening sky. Photo by Bruce Lane.

CAA member Bruce Lane photographed a portion of the International Space Station’s (ISS’s) trail as is passed through twilight skies over Northeastern Ohio. The April 12, 2012 pass put the ISS between the constellation Orion (left) and brilliant planet Venus (right). Wispy clouds decorated the darkening sky. Here’s what Bruce said of his photograph: “I took the … photo of last night’s ISS pass at 9:04:27. It was a nice pass that faded into the clouds as the ISS headed into … the east.” {This image shows the western sky with the ISS moving up, towards the upper-right of the frame.} Technical stuff: Tripod-mounted Canon Digital Rebel XT, ISO 200, 18 mm., 20 sec., f/3.5.

From Hubble: a grand new view of M9

Photo: M9 globular star cluster. Hubble image by NASA & ESA.
The stars of the M9 globular cluster. Photo credit: NASA & ESA.

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has produced the most detailed image so far of Messier 9 (M9), a globular star cluster located close to the center of the galaxy. This ball of stars is too faint to see with the naked eye, yet Hubble can see over 250,000 individual stars shining in it.

M9, pictured here is a roughly spherical swarm of stars that lies around 25,000 light-years from Earth, near the center of the Milky Way, so close that the gravitational forces from the galactic center pull it slightly out of shape. Globular clusters are thought to harbor some of the oldest stars in our galaxy, born when the Universe was just a small fraction of its current age. As well as being far older than the Sun —around twice its age— the stars of M9 also have a markedly different composition, and are enriched with far fewer heavier elements than the Sun.

In particular, the elements crucial to life on Earth, like oxygen and carbon, and the iron that makes up our planet’s core, are very scarce in M9 and clusters like it. This is because the Universe’s heavier elements were gradually formed in the cores of stars, and in supernova explosions. When the stars of M9 formed, there were far smaller quantities of these elements in existence.

M9, as its name suggests, was discovered by the great French comet hunter Charles Messier in 1764. Even through the most advanced telescopes of the day, none of the stars in the cluster could be seen individually. Messier, seeing only a faint smudge, therefore classified the object as a nebula –or “cloud” in Latin– and put it on his list of objects that looked like but were not comets. It was only later in the 18th century that astronomers, most notably William Herschel, began to spot stars within the cluster.

The contrast between Messier’s equipment and the tools at the disposal of today’s astronomers is stark. Hubble’s image, the highest resolution image yet made of M9, is able to resolve individual stars, right into the crowded center of the cluster. Over 250,000 of them are neatly focused on the detector of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys, in an image which covers an area of sky no bigger than the size of the head of a pin held at arm’s length.

As well as showing the individual stars, Hubble’s image clearly shows the different colors of the stars. A star’s color is directly related to its temperature — counter-intuitively, perhaps, the redder it is, the cooler it is; and the bluer it is, the hotter. The wide range of stellar temperatures here is clearly displayed by the broad palette of colors visible in Hubble’s image of M9.

Planets and moon(s) grace our evening sky

Photo: Moon and Jupiter by James Guilford
Earth's Moon and planet Jupiter form the base of a tall triangle. Photo by James Guilford.

Tonight, and for the next couple of nights, Earth’s Moon joins this spring’s conjunction of Jupiter and Venus in our western evening sky. The clouds cleared just in time for the show and I stepped outdoors, tripod-mounted camera in hand, to record the sight as best I could. The three objects, on the list of brightest in the night sky, formed a very elongated triangle with Jupiter and the Moon forming the base, and brilliant Venus at the peak (not shown in the photo above). The three were visible in bright twilight but really came into their own around 8:30 EDT. Later, as I processed my photos, I was surprised and delighted to see I had captured not only Venus, Jupiter, and the Moon but, in a tighter shot, a couple of Jupiter’s moons as well! The nighttime portion of the Moon’s face is lit by Earthshine. Canon EOS 50D: ISO 800, f/4, 1/4 sec., 200mm — James Guilford, 8:34 PM EDT, March 25, 2012

The Earth is also a planet: A Big Blue Marble

Photo Credit: NASA/NOAA/GSFC/Suomi NPP/VIIRS/Norman Kuring
Big Image from New Satellite Captures Amazing Detail

A ‘Blue Marble’ image of the Earth taken from the VIIRS instrument aboard NASA’s most recently launched Earth-observing satellite – Suomi NPP. This composite image uses a number of swaths of the Earth’s surface taken on January 4, 2012. The NPP satellite was renamed ‘Suomi NPP’ on January 24, 2012 to honor the late Verner E. Suomi of the University of Wisconsin.

Suomi NPP is NASA’s next Earth-observing research satellite. It is the first of a new generation of satellites that will observe many facets of our changing Earth. Suomi NPP is carrying five instruments on board. The biggest and most important instrument is The Visible/Infrared Imager Radiometer Suite or VIIRS.

Various sizes of this awe-inspiring image are available through NASA’s Flickr site including the astonishingly big 8,000 X 8,000-pixel original size! Be warned… it may be too much for your browser to handle!

Credit: NASA/NOAA/GSFC/Suomi NPP/VIIRS/Norman Kuring

Star clears away birth clouds

Photo: Hubble Space Telescope image of star-forming region Sh 2-106, or S106 for short.
Image credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

The Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Camera-3 has captured this image of a giant cloud of hydrogen gas illuminated by a bright young star. The image shows how violent the end stages of the star-formation process can be, with the young object shaking up its stellar nursery. Click here for a much larger image!

Despite the celestial colors of this picture, there is nothing peaceful about star forming region Sh 2-106, or S106 for short. A devilish young star, named S106 IR, lies in it and ejects material at high speed, which disrupts the gas and dust around it. The star has a mass about 15 times that of the Sun and is in the final stages of its formation. It will soon quieten down by entering the main sequence, the adult stage of stellar life.

For now, S106 IR remains embedded in its parent cloud, but it is rebelling against it. The material spewing off the star not only gives the cloud its hourglass shape but also makes the hydrogen gas in it very hot and turbulent. The resulting intricate patterns are clearly visible in this Hubble image.

The young star also heats up the surrounding gas, making it reach temperatures of 10 000 degrees Celsius. The star’s radiation ionizes the hydrogen lobes, making them glow. The light from this glowing gas is colored blue in this image.

Separating these regions of glowing gas is a cooler, thick lane of dust, appearing red in the image. This dark material almost completely hides the ionizing star from view, but the young object can still be seen peeking through the widest part of the dust lane.

S106 was the 106th object to be cataloged by the astronomer Stewart Sharpless in the 1950s. It is a few thousand light-years distant in the direction of Cygnus (The Swan). The cloud itself is relatively small by the standards of star-forming regions, around 2 light-years along its longest axis. This is about half the distance between the Sun and Proxima Centauri, our nearest stellar neighbor.

This composite picture was obtained with the Wide Field Camera 3 on the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. It results from the combination of two images taken in infrared light and one which is tuned to a specific wavelength of visible light emitted by excited hydrogen gas, known as H-alpha. This choice of wavelengths is ideal for targeting star-forming regions. The H-alpha filter isolates the light emitted from hydrogen in gas clouds while the infrared light can shine through the dust that often obscures these regions.