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Starry Night® Times

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Welcome again to our monthly newsletter with features on exciting celestial events, product reviews, tips & tricks, and a monthly sky calendar. We hope you enjoy it!

   

Starry Night® looks at Doomsday

If you don’t spend much time browsing obscure Web sites or watching cable TV, you might be unaware that the end of the world is supposed to be happening on December 21, 2012. I wasn’t aware of this myself until I started hanging out on Yahoo! Answers, a Web site where people can post questions and other people can answer them. Much to my surprise, I discovered that the year 2012 features in no fewer than 8,429 questions posed in the last year or so!

Prophets have been predicting Doomsday for millennia. In fact, there is a Web site listing over 200 specific dates on which the world was predicted to end. Every single one of these Doomsdays has come and passed, yet the world and its inhabitants have survived unscathed every time. It thus becomes very difficult for anyone familiar with history to take these predictions seriously.

The evidence for this latest Doomsday supposedly comes from many different sources, and is thus supposed to be convincing. Yet each of these separate indicators, when examined closely, falls apart. Here, I’ll use Starry Night® and a little astronomical knowledge to demolish one line of evidence.

One of the things which is supposed to happen on December 21, 2012 is that the Earth and Sun are supposed to line up with the Milky Way’s equator. So the first question should be, “What is the galactic equator?” Unlike a planet, a galaxy is not a nice neat spheroid, but is an irregular lumpy mass of stars, gas, and dust. It’s somewhat symmetrical, but trying to draw an equator on it would be like nailing jelly to a tree. What astronomers have done is to create an arbitrary line roughly across the centre of our galaxy, and have defined that as the galactic equator. This work was started by Harlow Shapley about 90 years ago and, while it’s been refined somewhat over the years, it still is a very arbitrary line. It was officially defined by the International Astronomical Union in 1959, but it is there by definition, not based on any physical characteristics or markers.

So let’s go to Starry Night®, where the galactic equator is located based on the IAU definition.

  • In the Options pane, open Guides and then Galactic Guides, and turn on Equator and Meridian.
     
  • Now open Ecliptic Guides and turn on Equator, Grid, and Meridian.
     
  • Change the Date and Time to December 21, 2012 11:11 UT (convert to your local time, for example Eastern Standard Time would be 06:11 a.m.)
     
  • Change Viewing Location to Centre of the Earth and the Orientation (under the Options menu) to Ecliptic.
     
  • Set the Zoom to 90°, and your window should look like this:

As expected for the solstice, the Sun is right on the intersection of the green ecliptic equator and 270° grid line. It also looks pretty much as if the Sun is also sitting on the blue galactic equator, though remember that that’s just an arbitrary line drawn on the sky. Let’s zoom in closer, to 15°:

Now you can see that things aren’t fitting quite so nicely. The Sun’s still on the ecliptic grid, but it’s slipped off the galactic equator.

Even if it’s on the galactic equator, remember that this is an arbitrary line. If you measure it, you’ll find that the Sun is over 6° away from the real centre of the Milky Way. Unlike the galactic equator, this is a real reference point in the sky, the Sagittarius A radio source and the place where the Chandra X-ray telescope has imaged the center of the Milky Way, 26,000 light years away.

Even if this “alignment” didn’t have a 6° kink in the middle of it, there’s the further question as to what might be the significance of having both the Sun, which the Earth orbits, and our galaxy’s black hole, which the Sun itself orbits, line up. The answer is: not very much. Gravitational effects are primarily determined by distance. This means that our Moon, though a tiny body, is the primary cause of the ocean tides. The Sun, while far larger, is so much farther away that its effect of the tides is very small. While our galaxy’s black hole is hugely massive, it’s so much farther away from us than the Sun that its effect on the Earth is totally negligible.

I’ve looked at a number of the other pieces of evidence for December 21, 2012 being a significant date, both astronomical and archaeological and, when closely examined, like the “galactic alignment,” they vanish into thin air.

All of this predicting Doomsday might be considered harmless, were it not for the events surrounding Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997. Then, the predictions of immanent disaster led to the death by suicide of 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult. I am deeply concerned that the promoters of this 2012 Doomsday “event” might precipitate another such deadly massacre. On December 22, 2012, the world will still be here, as it has survived the 200 plus previous “Doomsdays,” but I fear that another Heaven’s Gate may have occurred.

Geoff Gaherty
Geoff has been a life-long telescope addict, and is active in many areas of visual observation; he is a moderator of the Yahoo "Talking Telescopes" group.

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Mars Too Salty for Life?

In 2004, NASA's Opportunity rover found evidence in Martian soils that water had once flowed across the surface there, buoying hopes that the red planet may once have supported primitive life.

But a new study throws some cold water, and a big pinch of salt, on those hopes.

"Liquid water is required by all species on Earth and we've assumed that water is the very least that would be necessary for life on Mars," said study team member Nicholas J. Tosca, a Harvard University postdoctoral researcher. "However, to really assess Mars' habitability we need to consider the properties of its water. Not all of Earth's waters are able to support life, and the limits of terrestrial life are sharply defined by water's temperature, acidity and salinity."

Tosca and his team analyzed salt deposits in the 4-billion-year-old Martian rock investigated by Opportunity (and by spacecraft orbiting the planet). The new analysis shows that the water that would have flowed across these ancient Martian rocks may have been exceedingly briny.

"Our sense has been that while Mars is a lousy environment for supporting life today, long ago it might have more closely resembled Earth," said Andrew H. Knoll, also of Harvard and on the study team. "But this result suggests quite strongly that even as long as four billion years ago, the surface of Mars would have been challenging for life. No matter how far back we peer into Mars' history, we may never see a point at which the planet really looked like Earth."

The research was presented in February at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston.

Halophiles, or organisms that can tolerate high-salinity waters, are known to exist in places on Earth, but they likely evolved from organisms that lived in purer waters, scientists think, making it unlikely that life would actually arise initially in extremely briny waters.

The high salinity, however, "doesn't rule out life forms of a type we've never encountered," Knoll added, "but life that could originate and persist in such a salty setting would require biochemistry distinct from any known among even the most robust halophiles on Earth."

Knoll and Tosca also say the finding doesn't rule out the possibility that less salty waters once flowed on the planet, though Meridiani Planum, where the Opportunity rocks were found, is believed to have been one of the wetter, more hospitable places on the planet.

Further reading:

Andrea Thompson
Senior Writer, SPACE.com

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Canada's largest optical telescope is in troubl

The David Dunlap Observatory, founded in 1935 as a gift to the University of Toronto by Jessie Dunlap in her husband's memory, has been an active research facility for over seventy years, and is about to be sold to the highest bidder. The university will ensure that the legacy lives on in the form of the Dunlap Institute, a proposed centre for theoretical astrophysics, but the fate of the observatory site in Richmond Hill, Ontario hangs in the balance.

The city of Richmond Hill made a bid to purchase part of the property, but was turned down; City Council has been doing research into getting historical designation that would protect the site. You can follow the minutes of City Council meetings on their website. See the News and Meetings sections for details.

Local environmental groups are not taking this lying down either, as the observatory property includes two hundred acres of undeveloped wild parkland. It is one of the largest patches of urban parkland in all of Ontario. Hiking trips, protest rallies, and petitions have all been organized by the Richmond Hill Naturalists and other community groups in order to raise awareness of the fact that their green space and wildlife habitat may soon be replaced by commercial or residential development.

Finally, the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada has close ties to the Dunlap Observatory, as the University of Toronto's Dr. Clarence Chant was the driving force behind the founding of both institutions. RASC members have volunteered their time and telescopes for years of public education and outreach on the observatory grounds. In May of 2008, the RASC's Toronto Centre published a feasibility study to assist any future owner of the property in preserving the facilities, telescopes, educational programs, and undeveloped land. You can read more about the proposed Observatory Park at their website.

The DDO is still a highly-regarded research facility; in 2006 alone, nineteen papers were published on observations from the same telescope that led to Dr. Tom Bolton's discovery of the first known black hole in 1971. Research using that telescope will continue until sometime this summer. The popular public tours and amateur astronomy nights on the lawn have already ended – a tragic loss for a large urban centre with lots of light pollution and no large planetarium. 

Brenda Shaw

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Constellation in Focus: Coma Berenices

Constellation Map: Coma Berenices

At this time of year, Coma Berenices hangs high overhead, very well-placed for observation. Berenice was an Egyptian queen, the wife of King Ptolemy III Euergestes. When her husband went off to war, to ensure his safe return, she promised her hair to Aphrodite. The King did indeed return and Berenice gave up her hair, a tuft of which became this constellation.

Diadem is a binary star about 47 lightyears from us. It's two suns cannot be split in telescopes but, just a little to the north, M53 hangs in space at a much greater distance: 60,000 lightyears. M53 is a halo cluster, filled with dozens of Mag 13 stars.

M64, The Blackeye Galaxy, gets its famous name from the dark dust lane that cuts through the galaxy's core. With averted vision, you'll just be able to make out the lane. Overall, the galaxy is bright enough to be visible in binoculars.

NGC 4725 is a large bright spiral galaxy which has been warped by its interactions with close-by NGC 4747. This patch of sky also contains the North Galactic Pole.

NGC 4559, a faint spiral galaxy, is inclined 20° from edge-on. The larger your scope the better the view. NGC 4565 is inclined only 4° from edge-on and is breath-taking. Both galaxies belong to the Virgo Cluster.

NGC 4494 is an elliptical galaxy whose core rotates very rapidly—and in the opposite direction to the stars in the outer disk!

Sean O'Dwyer
Starry Night® Times Editor

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Astrophoto of the Month

Astrophoto of the Month

The Dumbbell Nebula (Messier 27) taken over two nights by Any D'Arienzo.

Number of subs: 117
Time of subs: 4 minutes
Total Time: 7 Hours 48 Minutes
ISO: 800
Filter: IDAS
Camera: Canon 40D Modified
Scope: Vixen VC200L / Vixen .64 focal reducer

   

PRIZES AND RULES:

We would like to invite all Starry Night® users to send their quality astronomy photographs to be considered for use in our monthly newsletter.

  • Featured submissions (best of month) will receive a prize of $75 USD.

Please read the following guidelines and see the submission e-mail address below.

  • Format: Digital images in either JPG, GIF or TIFF format.
  • Size: 700 pixels wide maximum.
  • File size should be less than 2 MB.
  • Include a caption: Your full name, location where photo was taken and any interesting details regarding your photo or how you took it. Please be brief.
  • Important notes: We may edit captions for clarity and brevity. We reserve the right to not use submissions. In submitting your image or images to Imaginova®, you agree to allow us to publish them in all media—on the Web or otherwise—now and in the future. We'll credit you, of course. Most important, you'll have the satisfaction of sharing your experience with the world!
  • Send images, following the above guidelines, to photo@starrynight.com (by sending an image you agree to the above terms, including Imaginova®’s right to publish your photos). Please do not send .ZIP files as they will not reach us.

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JUN 2008

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Eagle Eye Panorama

Eagle Eye Observatory Panorama Download

Panorama of the Eagle Eye Observatory, the Austin Astronomical Society's dark sky site near Burnet, Texas. Provided by Jeff Phillips.
   

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SN Pro 4.x and higher users: simply download this archive and extract the two files then place them in your Sky Data/Horizon Panoramas Folder.

Pedro Braganca
Content Director,
Starry Night®

   

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Sky Events
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A guided video tour of celestial events visible this month.

  • Click Here to Download

   

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Tips Tricks
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Download More Stars!

Starry Night Pro, Pro Plus and Astrophoto Suite users can download additional stars via the internet as faint as magnitude 22. Select "Automatic Star Download" from the "LiveSky" menu and new stars will be download for the area of the sky you are currently browsing. Internet connection is required.

Pedro Braganca
Content Director,
Starry Night®
   

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Sky Events
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Moon Phases

Tue., Jun. 3
New Moon, 3:23 p.m.
New Moon is "new" only in the sense that a new orbital cycle has started. You cannot see it at this time, but you may be able to catch a thin crescent in the western sky just as it begins to darken tomorrow night.

Tue., Jun. 10
First Quarter Moon, 11:04 a.m.
The Moon has completed the first one quarter of its current orbit. You can find it in the southeast sky in early afternoon, high to the south at sunset, and setting around midnight.

Wed., Jun. 18
Full Moon , 1:31 p.m.
The Full Moon of June is sometimes known as the Honey Moon. A number of Indian tribes called the sixth full moon of the year the "Strawberry" Moon (Algonquin, Ojibwa, Kutenai) and others referred to ripening berries (Dakota, Haida) or corn (Laguna, Oto, Taos). Indian Moon information courtesy of Kim Long and The Moon Book (Johnson Books, Boulder, 1998).

Thu., Jun. 26
Last Quarter , 8:10 a.m.
This phase, sometimes erroneously called a "half moon" rises at roughly midnight (standard time), and sets at roughly noon the next day. Of course this is constantly varying.

Observing Highlights

Sat., Jun. 7
Moon-Mars, 10:00 p.m.
The Waxing Crescent Moon passes just over a degree south of Mars in the western evening sky. This is seen as an occultation (eclipse of Mars) by observers in New Zealand, but just a close approach for those of us in North America.

Fri., Jun. 20
June Solstice , 8:00 p.m.
Earth's seasons are caused as the planet's tilt toward the Sun changes through the year. It oscillates up and down, with the maximum tilt toward the Sun for the Northern Hemisphere occurring today. This causes the Sun to reach its highest point in the sky for the year, at which time it momentarily stops the upward climb and then starts getting lower each day. This momentary stop in embodied in the name "solstice," which means "Sun standing still." Summer begins in the Northern Hemisphere, but Winter begins in the Southern.

Planets

Mercury is at inferior conjunction on June 7 (meaning that it passes roughly between the Earth and the Sun and cannot be seen), and does not reappear until near the end of the month when it reemerges into the morning eastern dawn.

Venus is too close to the Sun to be seen this month It is in superior conjunction on the 9th, meaning that it passes the Sun, but on the far side of the Sun. This cannot be observed, but interestingly, the Sun actually occults (blocks it out as in an eclipse) Venus when the planet passes directly behind it. Venus re-emerges into the evening sky in July.

Mars is in the western evening sky, rapidly approaching Regulus in Leo, which it passes by less than a degree on the 30th. At magnitude 1.5 to 1.6, it dims only a little during the month.

Jupiter rises shortly before midnight in the southeastern sky, and stays up the rest of the night in Sagittarius. It is slowly growing in brightness, reaching -2.7 magnitude by the end of the month. That's about as bright as it can get, outshining all other planets except Venus.

Saturn, near Regulus in Leo, is rapidly sinking into the evening western sky. At the beginning of the month it sets before midnight, but by the end of the month it is setting a little more than two hours after the sun (the exact times depend on your geographic location). It is near Regulus, and Mars is moving in to form a nice pair with the other planet and star by month's end.

Dates

Tue., Jun. 3
Moon at perigee, 9:12 a.m.
When the Moon is at perigee it is closest to Earth, and when this occurs near the Full or New Moon, the tidal forces are increased. New Moon is only about 6 hours later this time, so ocean tides should be slightly larger than normal. At this perigee, the Moon is about 56 earth radii away, or about 222,000 miles.

Sun., Jun. 8
Moon-Regulus-Saturn, 11:00 p.m.
The Waxing Crescent Moon passes about 1.4 degrees south of Regulus in Leo, with Saturn a few degrees above. Look westward in mid-to late evening. The Moon passes about 3 degrees from Saturn after dawn tomorrow.

Mon., Jun. 9
Venus in superior conjunction, 12:35 a.m.
This event is not observable, Venus being in line with the Sun (but on the far side). However, it marks the point when Venus technically moves to the evening side of the Sun. But don't expect to see it until mid-July.

Mon., Jun. 16
Moon at apogee, 1:34 p.m.
On June 3, the Moon was in perigee, or closest to Earth in the current orbit. Today it is at apogee, or farthest from the Earth in this orbit. This is about 63.7 earth-radii distance, or roughly 252,400 miles.

Thu., Jun. 17
Moon-Antares, 1:00 a.m.
The Moon passes very near the bright star Antares in Scorpius. This is in the southern sky tonight. For observers in parts of the Southern Hemisphere, this is an occultation in which the Moon passes directly in front of the stars, blocking it out as in an eclipse. However, here in the North it is just a close approach.

Fri., Jun. 20
Moon-Jupiter, predawn
Look for bright Jupiter near the Waning Gibbous Moon before dawn in the southern skies. The closest approach of about 2 degrees is after dawn, but the two will provide a nice sight before light.

As always, there's more to explore on NightSky.

All times shown are U.S. Eastern Daylight Time.

[Data for this calendar has been derived from a number of sources including the Observer's Handbook 2008 of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Starry Night® software, and others. Only events with a reasonable possibility for Northern Hemisphere observers, or those events with some other significance, are given.]
   

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