Skytalk A weekly discussion of what's new and interesting in astronomy with astronomer Derrick Pitts



A weekly discussion of what's new and interesting in astronomy with astronomer Derrick Pitts

Most Recent Episodes

What's in a name?

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) is putting out the call on its 100th anniversary to name an exoplanet and its star. The IAU, the world's largest professional body for astronomers, serves as the internationally recognized authority for assigning designations to celestial bodies and the surface features on them. US Exoplanet Naming Contest Opens Tomorrow! Applicants will have until Oct. 15 at midnight to submit their idea for the name of a star and exoplanet system. The IAU naming committee uses an established system of naming to carefully regulate the naming of astronomical objects in order to provide consistency and avoid duplication and confusion. In this case, the IAU has identified one star and exoplanet system for each country around the world and has allowed each country to establish a national committee to gather ideas from each nation's population. The star system chosen for the US is HD 17156 in the constellation Cassiopeia. The US committee will collect candidate names from across the US, ultimately identify the top three most popular names and submit those to the IAU for the final selection. Everything you need to know for how to submit a name is found on a page at The Franklin Institute's website: This is a great school project, astronomy club project or individual entry project for a chance to have your name idea written in the stars for eternity! The list of 10 semi-finalists will be made public and available for public voting on October 30. The top three selected by U.S voters will be submitted by November 15 to the IAU100 NameExoworlds Steering Committee for the final choice. The final result will be announced the week of December 16. Nght Sky Highlights -The great Square of Pegasus is now well up in the east by 10pm, with the Andromeda galaxy visible in binoculars under dark clear skies. -Jupiter and Saturn, the Summer Triangle, and the summer Milky Way are also still visible with those bright southern summer constellations Sagittarius and Scorpius flanking the Milky Way. -The Big Dipper is low in the northwest sky as well three seasons of stars in one night.

Star Trekkin'

The TV series 'Star Trek' premiered 53 years ago. The original series only lasted three seasons on prime time, but really hit its stride in syndication, where its popularity exploded. It also fueled fantasies for many other TV programs and films, and maybe even real life space exploration. The last day for filming was 1/8/69, six months before Apollo 11 left for the moon. September means a shorter number of minutes of sunlight; Sunrise now at 6:34am and sunset at 7:23pm. Taking advantage of the growing opportunities for night sky viewing; A waxing crescent moon sneaks up on Saturn tonight and zips past during the day tomorrow. Saturn is just above the top star of the teapot shape of Sagittarius and Jupiter is not far above the red giant star Antares of Scorpius. The two planets straddle the southern Milky Way galaxy, a fine target for binocular observing.

India Targets South Pole (of the Moon)

After a four-week journey from earth, the Indian Space Research Organization announced its Chandrayaan 2 spacecraft successfully entered lunar orbit. Next up in about a week is a landing attempt, then a rover deployment. The chosen landing location is the moon's South Pole region. The orbiter is expected to operate for about a year and the lander and rover will perform surface studies. The rover is about 60 pounds and solar powered. The lander and rover are expected to last at least one lunar day (two weeks) but as lunar night comes flight controllers will try to awaken the rover and lander after the two-week sleep. India hopes to complete its first crewed mission by 2022. The Big Dipper is visible in the northwest just after dark and the main summer constellations Cygnus, Lyra, and Altair are overhead by 9:00pm. Catch three seasons of constellations in one overnight: Summer Triangle overhead at 9:30pm, Pegasus and Andromeda (w/ M31) in the east at 10:30pm, and Orion in the east at 5:00am-5:30am. The moon is next to Jupiter on the evening of the 5th and slides towards Saturn the next night.

Nano-Sized Needle in a Huge Haystack

Nuclear Physicist Gunther Korschinek and his team of researchers from Technical University of Munich sifted through half-a-ton of snow from Antarctica to find 10 atoms(!) of Iron-60 an isotope (radioactive 60 protons, 60 neutrons in the nucleus) only produced in supernova explosions. Their study of the deposit indicates the 60Fe only recently arrived (likely in the past few decades). 60Fe has been detected before in ocean sediments, on the moon and in meteorites but those deposits are a few millions years old. Shock waves from stellar explosions must carry the 60Fe through space and we happened to be in the path of the traveling shock waves. A diminishing amount of sunlight by mid-August triggers trees to start closing down – triggering a hormone that releases a chemical message to each leaf that it is time to prepare for winter. Over the next few weeks, abscission cells form a bumpy line at the place where the leaf stem meets the branch. And slowly, but surely, the leaf is "pushed" from the tree branch. This winterization process ensures trees' survival. In spring and summer, leaves convert sunlight into energy through photosynthesis. During that process, the trees lose so much water that when winter arrives, the trees are no longer able to get enough water to replace it.

Laying in Wait

Tardigrades, also called water bears because of their microscopic teddy or panda bear-like appearance have been known to exist in a dormant state for a decade or more. Some have even survived hitchhiked rides on rockets to orbit and survived the deadly environment of space. The Israeli lunar mission was carrying several thousand of the microscopic critters when in crash-landed on the moon in April. They have the enviable ability to put themselves into a sort of state of suspended animation called cryptobiosis. In other words, when living conditions become less than ideal, they can curl themselves up, dry themselves out and become relatively impervious to the outside world until conditions improve. Given their ability to hibernate for decades, it's remotely possible that some of them could be collected and re-animated (rehydrated) by future lunar explorers! Although the Perseid Meteor Shower is the year's best shower, it will be compromised this year due to an almost full moon that will make viewing a challenge. Muddy Run Observatory Sky and Star Festival takes place today- A great family event, from noon to 11 p.m. at Muddy Run Park in Holtwood, PA. I'll be presenting tonight in between telescopic observing at the region's newest observatory under very dark skies. Viewing highlights at the Franklin Institute Night Skies at the Observatory on Tuesday include the moon, Jupiter and Saturn.

Halfway to Autumn

Upcoming cross-quarter day on August 1 is known as LoafMass: A celebration of the first loaves of bread from the first harvests of wheat in Northern Europe. The Celts called the day Lughnasadh, recognizing the fruits of the marriage of the Sun god Lugh and the Earth goddess. Other, better-known cross-quarter days are Beltane/May Day on May 1, Samhain/Halloween on October 31, and Candlemas/Groundhog Day on February 2. All cross quarter designations were useful divisions of the calendar, making it easier to keep track of planting and harvest cycles. We're gathering new evidence about galactic sized mergers, including one in our Milky Way. Stars in our galaxy have been calculated to be 10 to 13 billion years old – as old as the oldest stars in the universe! They also indicate that the infant Milky Way was once impacted by a smaller galaxy that today is revealed by a distinct population of blue star scattered throughout the Milky Way. These are older, redder stars formed during the universe's first billion years. Scattered throughout the Milky Way, the smaller galaxy's stars have a distinctive signature that shows it formed in a different part of space where the supply materials are different. This work has to be coordinated with other studies that show the Milky Way currently merging with other galaxies. Jupiter and Saturn dominate the cross-quarter evening sky now, straddling the Milky Way.

It Was 50 Years Ago Today

Today, July 20th, marks the 50th anniversary of mankind's giant leap. At 4:17 p.m. (EDT) The Apollo 11 lunar module touched down on the southwestern edge of the Sea of Tranquility. Astronaut Neil Armstrong immediately radioed to Mission Control in Houston, Texas; "The Eagle has landed." At 10:39 p.m., Armstrong opened the hatch of the lunar module, and 17 minutes later, stepped off the ladder and planted his foot on the lunar surface. Fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin joined him on the moon's surface 19 minutes later, and together they photographed the terrain, planted a U.S. flag, conducted scientific tests and spoke with President Richard Nixon via Houston. They also left a plaque that read: "Here men from the planet Earth first set foot on the moon—July 1969 A.D.—We came in peace for all mankind." By 1:11 a.m. on July 21, both astronauts were back in the lunar module and the hatch was closed. The entire nine day trip was probably the most significant voyage ever for humans. New moons have been spotted forming for the first time! PDS 70b and PDS 70c have been spotted in the disc of dust surrounding their giant planet around the star PDS 70. Combined optical, infrared, and radio data results show not only a protoplanetary disc around the star but also circumplanetary disc around its two largest planet – indicating the formation of moons around those Jupiter-like sized planets.

Planet + Renegade Moon = Ploonet

A new study suggests that moons of some exoplanets might be pulled away from their planet parents to become independent star orbiters – not planets . . . but ploonets. 50 years ago Tuesday, Apollo 11 astronauts left earth bound to become the first humans to step onto another celestial body. Neil Armstrong writes a check to pay personal debts before he leaves for the moon! The Franklin Institute's "Summer of the Moon" program cranks up next week with Night Sky Observatory programs on Tuesday and Thursday, with a full day of programming next Saturday, July 20. Turning to the night sky – The moon slides past Jupiter tonight, then Saturn on Sunday evening. Full moon is Tuesday night.

Happy Independence Day...& Aphelion

There will be a total Solar Eclipse Tuesday July 2nd in Chile and Argentina. The Exploratorium in San Francisco will cover the eclipse live from Cerro Tololo Observatory in Chile at The next total eclipse in North America will take place in April, 2024. Aphelion: Earth will reach its greatest distance from the sun this year on Independence Day July 4 at 4pm. 94,507,880 miles vs 91,403,180 miles on January 3 this year. Last week, data from atmospheric sampling on Curiosity indicated a methane outgassing of biblical proportions on Mars, the largest ever detected; 21 parts per billion...three times larger than the last seen burp. While it's exciting to find extraterrestrial organic compounds, and tempting to jump to a biochemical process of origin, Mars is covered with the right rocks, trace water and heat for a non-organic geochemical accounting for this observation. Whereas there is no evidence whatsoever of the current existence or past existence of life on Mars that could be responsible for a metabolic biochemical process of methane production.

50 Years On

"The Apollo Chronicles" by regional producer Rotfeld Productions premieres at The Franklin Institute next week at Night Skies Observatory (Tuesday, June 11). All four episodes, which reveal a new understanding of just how NASA's Apollo program came to be, will be featured at the Franklin Institute this month and next month leading up to the anniversary day itself (launched 7/16/69 – landed on the surface of the moon 7/20/69 – returned to Earth 7/24/69. On Tuesday the producers will share their journey of creation telling us their stories of how they acquired the unbelievable footage and interviews with flight engineers, flight controllers, politicians, and the astronauts themselves. In anticipation of a return to the moon; three commercial services begin providing lunar lander services to NASA through The Commercial Lunar Services Program. They will ferry up to 23 NASA provided payloads to three different locations where they'll conduct science investigations and demonstrate advances technologies in preparation for our return to the moon now proposed for 2024. In this case, NASA is a customer receiving service from a commercial provider. Missions are currently scheduled to begin dropping on the moon as early as September 2020 and all are expected to be completed by 2021. This Thursday makes the 16th year since solar system spacecraft Pioneer 10 left the solar system. Launched in 1972, it was the first spacecraft to reach the planet Jupiter. Last heard from in 2003, it's currently 11 billion miles out and headed toward Taurus, where in 90,000 years, it'll pass closer to a star (just under a light year) than any of the other four interstellar spacecraft will fly in the next few million

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