This is a special year because it is the 400th anniversary of the first astronomical use of the telescope and it has been designated as the International Year of Astronomy. During the year there will be many events all around the world and it is best to check your National Node to find out what's happening near you. One of the biggest global events during the year is likely be the 100 hours of astronomy (2-5 April).
In the news this month:
- A 16 year study of the central region of the Milky Way has mapped the orbits of almost 30 stars around the supermassive black hole known as Sagittarius A*. The study, led by a group from Max-Planck-Institut f? extraterrestrische Physik in Germany, has used state-of-the-art telescopes run by ESO in Chile to carefully observe more than 100 stars in the central few arc seconds of the galactic centre.
- Cassini's latest flyby of Saturn's moon Enceladus has shown evidence of ongoing changes over time in the surface near the south pole. Previous observations have shown jets of water vapour and icy particles apparently coming from long cracks on the surface.
- Observations made using the 100m Effelsberg telescope in Germany have detected the presence of water vapour in a galaxy at a record distance from the Earth. The study used gravitational lensing to look for radio emission in the quasar MG J0414+0534 located at a redshift of 2.64 - a light travel time of 11.1 billion years. The astronomers were looking for water masers - radiation beamed and amplified in a similar way to a laser but at microwave wavelengths.
- A team from the University of Queensland have suggested a new theory to explain the loss of ill-fated Mars probe Beagle 2. As it detached from the Mars Express orbiter, it was made to spin in order to stabilize its descent to the surface. The new simulations suggest that the spin rate could have been set to high causing the spacecraft to destabilize and burn up before reaching the ground.
365 Days of Astronomy
The dawn of 2009 brings with it a new astronomy podcast. This podcast - 365 Days of Astronomy - will produce a new episode for every day of 2009. The twist is that this podcast is created by anyone with an interest in astronomy. Dr Pamela Gay tells us about the podcast and how to get involved. If you're shy or just prefer to listen, make sure that you subscribe to the 365 Days of Astronomy RSS feed or via iTunes.
Favourite Images of 2008
With it being the start of the new year, Nick and Stuart decided to look back over their favourite astronomical images of 2008.
- MESSENGER is at Mercury taking great pictures of volcanos, craters and the full disc
- EPOXI took a great movie of the Moon transiting the Earth
- Mars Phoenix uncovered water ice (suggested by Sharikkamur) and took a great time lapse shot of the midnight Sun. MRO took an image of Mars Phoenix as it was parachuting down to the surface of Mars. MRO also caught a Martian avalanche.
- Cassini has been returning thousands of images of Saturn, its rings, the persistent polar hexagon and the ice geysers on Encaldus (suggested by Mactavish).
- Chandrayaan-1 took images of the Moon and KAGUYA has made HD movies of Earth rise.
- Stuart's favourite image is one of the Cat's Eye nebula made with the Chandra X-ray observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope (check out the cover art).
- Nick's favourite image is of stars orbiting the Milky Way's central supermassive black hole.
There were a couple of late submissions via Twitter that deserve honorable mentions:
- LouisS suggests an amazing image of the Moon rising behind the Shuttle.
- Space_Jockey suggests Hubble's image of a planet discovered around Fomalhaut b.
The Night Sky
High in the south is the constellation of Orion the Hunter with a line of three stars making up his belt. Below the central one is the Sword of Orion. By eye you might see a hazy glow but with binoculars you should definitely see a smudge. A small telescope shows a lovely region of dust and gas illuminated by four stars called the Trapezium. The three stars of Orion's belt point down towards the star Sirius. Just below Sirius you should pick up a little cluster - M41 - which contains a nice red giant star at its heart. Up to the right of Orion's Belt is Taurus the Bull containing the Hyades and Pleiades star clusters. Above Orion is the constellation Auriga with the bright star Capella at its head. Auriga contains quite a few open clusters. Up to the left is Gemini the Twins with the bright stars Castor and Pollux. There is a rather nice cluster - M35 - at the foot of the uppermost of the twins.
Jupiter has been relatively low in the evening sky for some months now. Saturn is the best placed planet in the sky and rises at about 10:30pm at the start of January and around 9pm by the end of the month. It can be seen high in the southern sky in the ours before dawn. Saturn is about magnitude +0.8. Mercury rose out of the sunset glare at the end of December. Mars is too close to the Sun to observe. Venus is low in the west after sunset and is gradually moving further in angle from the Sun. Its brightness is around magnitude -4.5.
- On January 4th, Mercury (at magnitude -0.5) is at its furthest in angle from the Sun so sets the longest time after sunset and so is easiest to see in the twilight. Jupiter (at magnitude -1.9 ) is 4 degrees to its lower right so both should be seen in a binocular field of view. Venus (at magnitude -4.4) lies some way to its upper left with a first quarter Moon high to its upper left. A very nice skyscape - let's hope that it is clear! The early morning of Jan 4th will give us the chance, if clear, of observing the Quadrantid meteor shower. The shower is expected to peak on the morning of the 4th of January at about 5 am.
- The Moon passes in front of the Pleiades Cluster at Sunset on the 7th January. The first stars are occulted before it gets dark, and as night falls binoculars will show the cluster surrounding the Moon. If you observe the top left of the Moon's disk which is in shadow, you should be able to see the stars dissapear. It will be harder to see them emerge against the bright limb of the Moon at its lower right. The occultation will be over by ~18:37.
- Venus ill lie within one and a half degrees above Uranus over the nights of January 21-23 so, if clear, will easily be seen at magnitude 5.9 with a pair of binoculars. A small telescope will show a tiny turquoise disc. Do have a try - it will be one of the easiest times ever to spot Uranus!
Just to the east of south at around 10pm you will see Alpha Centauri. Alpha Centauri is actually a triple system, one of which is Proxima Centauri - the nearest star to the Sun. Up to the left of Alpha Centauri you'll see Beta Centauri. Alpha Centauri is just over 4 light years away but Beta Centauri is over 500 light years away so it must be inherently very bright. Alpha and Beta Cenaturi can be used to find Crux - the Southern Cross. Just to its lower left is a prominent dark region named The Coalsack. It's a dense region of dust and gas about 2000 light years from us. To the left of Alpha Crucis and Beta Crucis is the Jewel Box. It contains about 100 visible stars and is about 10 million years old.
For more information check out Ian's Night Sky pages for January 2009.
Odds and Ends
Listener Terry Goodfellow mentioned that he visited Mt John Observatory in New Zealand after hearing our report on it on the April 2006 edition of the Jodcast.
Over the holidays we had a few problems with our webserver which meant that our website was inaccessible for quite a bit of the time. To be nice to our server we didn't get around to releasing the second of our promised video episodes. It will go up on the site once things have settled down. Thanks to our twitter followers for their suggestions on ways to reduce the strain. We are trying out the Coral Content Delivery Network which should cache copies of the HD video closer to the user.
|Interview:||Dr Pamela Gay and Stuart Lowe|
|Interview:||Nick Rattenbury and Stuart Lowe|
|Night sky this month:||Ian Morison|
|Presenters:||Nick Rattenbury and Stuart Lowe|
|Intro script:||David Ault|
|The Educator - model 101:||Bruce Busby|
|Sarah Connor:||Gwendolyn Jensen Woodard|
|John Connor:||David Maciver|
|Cover art:||NGC 6543/The Cat's Eye Nebula. Credit: CREDIT: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: NASA/STScI|