In the show this time, we talk to Sadie Jones about her outreach work at the University of Southampton, Alice Humpage rounds up the latest news, and we find out what we can see in the October night sky from Ian Morison, Haritina Mogosanu and Samuel Leske.
This month in the news: an unexpectedly large planet around a small star, a visitor from outside the solar system, a lost lunar lander, and water in the atmosphere of a super-earth.
First, a large planet has been found orbiting a small star. GJ 3512 b is a gas giant with a mass at least half of that of Jupiter, but potentially much bigger. What's interesting about this planet is that it is orbiting a red dwarf.
The current theories about planet formation don't expect this to be possible, as they predict that there wouldn't have been enough material around the red dwarf earlier in its life to form planets as large as this one. This means that theories have to be re-examined in order to explain this strange planet. The paper on this finding can be seen here.
Next, a new interstellar visitor has been discovered in the solar system. The comet, named Borisov, is only the second comet found to have come from outside of our solar system. The first was the cigar shaped 'Oumuamua discovered in October 2017.
Many interstellar objects are thought to come through our solar system within the orbit of the Earth, and even more reach Neptune, but they are very hard to spot. The comet is likely to stick around for a year, and will be closest to the Sun in December (2019). As it gets closer, the comet will provide fascinating insights into the conditions outside of our solar system.
In some less good news, India is still trying to connect to its lost lunar lander. The Vikram lander, part of the Chandrayaan-2 mission, was meant to reach the south pole of the moon on the 6th of September after launching in late July. Contact was lost only a couple of kilometres from its destination, and still hasn't been made.
ISRO, the Indian space research organisation, has already successfully launched a lunar orbiter as part of this mission, and though the Vikram would only have been in operation for 2 weeks, the missions triumph would have made India only the fourth country to achieve a soft landing on a body outside the Earth. The organisation says the orbiter has found the lander near to where it was expected to be, though images have yet to be released.
Finally, astronomers have found water in the atmosphere of a Super-Earth for the first time.
K2-18b is eight times the mass of the Earth, and is orbiting a red dwarf star. The planet lies in the habitable-zone of its star, which for this system is a quarter of the way closer than the Earth is to our Sun.
Crude estimates of the temperature of the planet put it between -73 and 47 degrees celsius, though this depends on the surface and atmosphere of the planet. The study found water vapour in the atmosphere of the planet, and the discovery is an excellent look into the atmospheres of planets which may have the potential to support life.
Though the extent of the water is unknown due to technological limitations, the next generation of space telescopes will allow us to find out how much water vapour surrounds this planet.
Interview with Sadie Jones
This month we talk to Sadie Jones of the University of Southampton about her work in astronomy outreach.
She discusses how she got into astronomy and got a job in outreach, before talking about the work that the university does, including its impressive mobile planetarium.
Sadie also discusses the recent public outreach projects she has been involved in organising, for example talking about supernovae in an airport and a cipher challenge to decode strange messages from space.
The Night Sky
Ian Morison tells us what we can see in the northern hemisphere’s night sky during October 2019.
- Jupiter, shining on the 1st at magnitude -2 and falling to -1.9 during the month, can be seen low in the southwest as darkness falls. As the month progresses, its angular size drops from 35.8 to 33.5 arc seconds. Jupiter lies in the southeastern part of Ophiuchus and is heading towards the southernmost part of the ecliptic so, as it appears in the twilight, will only have an elevation of ~10 degrees. With its low elevation, atmospheric dispersion will take its toll and an atmospheric dispersion corrector would greatly help to improve our views of the giant planet.
- Saturn, will be seen in the south as darkness falls at the start of the month. Then, its disk is ~16.8 arc seconds across and its rings - which are still, at 25.2 degrees, nicely tilted from the line of sight - spanning some 41 arc seconds across. During the month its brightness falls from magnitude +0.5 to +0.6 whilst its angular size falls to 16 arc seconds. Sadly, now in Sagittarius and lying on the south-western side of the milky way, it is at the lowest point of the ecliptic and will only reach an elevation of ~14 degrees. As with Jupiter, an atmospheric dispersion corrector will help improve our view.
- Mercury, reaches eastern elongation (at an angular distance of 24.6 degrees) on the 19th of the month but, as the ecliptic is at such a shallow angle at this time of the year, its elevation at sunset (~1.5 degrees) is so low that, lying to the upper left of Venus, it will be very hard to spot. A very low south-western horizon will be needed along with binoculars - but please do not use them until after the Sun has set.
- Mars, which passed behind the Sun (superior conjunction) on September 2nd, returns to the pre-dawn sky at the start of its new apparition. It might just be glimpsed just south of east in the latter part of the month but will only have an elevation of ~11 degrees at sunrise by month's end. Binoculars could well be needed to spot its +1.8th magnitude, 3.7 arc second disk - but please do not use them after the Sun has risen.
- Venus, may be glimpsed in the west south-west some 30 minutes after sunset at the start of the month, but will be very difficult to see due to the fact that the ecliptic is at a shallow angle to the horizon and so Venus will have a very low elevation. By month's end it sets about one hour after the Sun but will still be hard to spot. Its magnitude remains at about -3.9 and its disk, ~10 arc seconds across, is almost fully lit. Binoculars and a very low horizon will be needed, but please do not use them until after the Sun has set.
- October - observe Saturn. Saturn is now low (at an elevation of ~13 degrees) just west of south as darkness falls lying above the 'teapot' of Sagittarius. Held steady, binoculars should enable you to see Saturn's brightest moon, Titan, at magnitude 8.2. A small telescope will show the rings with magnifications of x25 or more and one of 6-8 inches aperture with a magnification of ~x200 coupled with a night of good "seeing" (when the atmosphere is calm) will show Saturn and its beautiful ring system in its full glory.
As Saturn rotates quickly with a day of just 10 and a half hours, its equator bulges slightly and so it appears a little "squashed". Like Jupiter, it does show belts but their colours are muted in comparison.
The thing that makes Saturn stand out is, of course, its ring system. The two outermost rings, A and B, are separated by a gap called Cassini's Division which should be visible in a telescope of 4 or more inches aperture if seeing conditions are good. Lying within the B ring, but far less bright and difficult to spot, is the C or Crepe Ring.
Due to the orientation of Saturn's rotation axis of 27 degrees with respect to the plane of the solar system, the orientation of the rings as seen by us changes as it orbits the Sun and twice each orbit they lie edge on to us and so can hardly be seen. This last happened in 2009 and they are currently at an angle of 25 degrees to the line of sight. The rings will continue to narrow until March 2025 when they will appear edge-on again.
- October - find the globular cluster in Hercules and spot the "Double-double" in Lyra There are two very nice objects to spot with binoculars high, just west of south, after dark this month. Two thirds of the way up the right hand side of the 4 stars that make up the "keystone" in the constellation Hercules is M13, the best globular cluster visible in the northern sky.
Just to the left of the bright star Vega in Lyra is the multiple star system Epsilon Lyrae often called the double-double. With binoculars a binary star is seen but, when observed with a telescope, each of these two stars is revealed to be a double star - hence the name!
- October, late evening: the Double Cluster and the 'Demon Star', Algol. October is a good time to look high in the Southeast towards the constellations of Cassiopea and Perseus. Perseus contains two interesting objects; the Double Cluster between the two constellations and Algol the 'Demon Star'. Algol in an eclipsing binary system. Normally the pair has a steady magnitude of 2.2 but every 2.86 days this briefly drops to magnitude 3.4. Visible times of the eclipse are (in UT): on the 5th at 22:12 and the 28th at 20:42.
- October: find Uranus. This month is a good time to find the planet Uranus in the late evening as it reaches opposition on October 28th. With a magnitude of 5.7, binoculars will easily spot it and, from a really dark site, it might even be visible to the unaided eye. A medium aperture telescope will reveal Uranus's 3.7 arc second wide disk showing its turquoise colour. It lies in Aries, close to the boarders of Pisces and Cetus as shown on the chart on the ‘Night Sky Jodrell’ page.
- October - evening: find the 'Coathanger'. Looking upwards after dark you should spot the three stars making up the 'Summer Triangle'. The lowest is Altair in Aquilla, up to its right is Vega in Lyra and over to its left is Deneb in Cygnus. With binoculars sweep upwards about one third of the way from Altair towards Vega. You should spot a nice asterism, formally 'Brocchi's Cluster' but usually called the Coathanger. It is formed of a straight line of six stars below which is a 'hook' of four stars. A pretty object!
- October 3rd - after sunset: Jupiter near the Moon. After sunset, low in the south-west, Jupiter will be seen down to the lower left of a waxing crescent Moon.
- October 5th - after sunset: Saturn near the Moon. After sunset, low in the south, Saturn will be seen just up to the left of the first quarter Moon.
- October 17th - late evening: The Moon close to the Hyades Cluster. In the late evening, looking southeast, the waning Moon will be seen up to the left of Aldebaran and to the left of the Hyades Cluster. [NB, Aldebaran is not part of the cluster and lies closer to us.]
Haritina Mogosanu and Samuel Leske tell us what we can see in the southern hemisphere’s night sky during October 2019.
- A bit about October. October, as the name says it, (from the Greek ôctō meaning "eight") is the eighth month in the old calendar of Romulus c. 750 bc. The original calendar consisted of 10 months beginning in spring with March; October retained its name after January and February were inserted into the original Roman calendar.
- What’s the Sun up to? The reality is that the Sun does not spend an equal amount of time passing through the zodiacal constellations, for the simple reason that these constellations are different areas patches in the sky. So technically, this month, the Sun is in Virgo until the 1st of November when it moves into Libra and has been in Virgo since the 17th of September. Virgo is a really long constellation to transit.
- What’s at Zenith? Beautiful Sagittarius is at Zenith just after Sunset and then as the month progresses it’s replaced by other amazing constellations such as Microscopium, which is basically a rectangle, and then one of our favourite constellations, Grus towards the middle of the month - or later on in the evening, whichever you prefer. The cool thing about Grus, the Crane is that it has many double stars, it almost looks like a curved line, which is the imaginary tail that points us towards the Small Magellanic Cloud, which is in the neighbouring constellation, another bird, the Toucan.
In addition to that, another favourite of mine, Fomalhaut, is getting very close to Zenith this time of the year. I love Fomalhaut because when I was in the Northern Hemisphere, before I travelled here, it was the southernmost star that I could see, and it was said to show the passage south. It actually does if you know where to look. Fomalhaut is one of the Royal stars, along with Antares, Regulus and Aldebaran. The Royal stars were the guardians of the sky in approximately 3000 BCE during the time of the Ancient Persians in the area of modern-day Iran. The Persians believed that the sky was divided into four districts with each district being guarded by one of the four Royal Stars. The stars were believed to hold both good and evil power and the Persians looked upon them for guidance in scientific calculations of the sky, such as the calendar and lunar/solar cycles, and for predictions about the future.
- What’s on the Ecliptic? The ecliptic is the part of the sky that holds the path of the Sun as we see it from here from Earth, and other than bright planets, it also hosts some bright stars. There’s Zubenelgenubi and Zubeneschamali in Libra getting close to the western horizon and then red giant Antares in Scorpius and a few of the stars in Sagittarius, that make the teapot. Capricornus has also some bright stars and it’s very characteristic shape of a golf flag. Then, this is kind of it with the bright stars, will have to wait until late in the night to see Taurus and Aldebaran, the other of the Royal Stars and last but not least, Regulus, in Leo will rise just before the Sun.
- The Milky Way, Scorpius and Orion The bulk of the Milky Way is on the Western horizon. The Galactic centre slowly going down sinking behind the Sun. The Southern Cross, which is also visually in the Milky Way, is doing its big descent as it dives towards the horizon, getting lower and lower each evening throughout the month, as seen after sunset. It is circumpolar so it never disappears from the Southern Sky but it means the lovely clusters and nebulae that you would have enjoyed in Spring and Winter have long gone from being in a favourable viewing position — they now compete with the horizon.
The other patch of the Milky Way that remains in a very good position for viewing is the area around Sagittarius and Scorpius with many globular clusters and nebulae (distant, celestial clouds) to look at. The highlights, for me, are the bright nebulae such M16 (the Eagle Nebula), Lagoon Nebula and the very photogenic Trifid Nebula. Ptolemy’s Cluster is a great naked eye object that is visible between the two constellations.
- South Circumpolar Zone Just after sunset, the Large Magellanic Cloud and the Southern Cross are close to the horizon where the Small Magellanic Cloud is in a good position to observe.
- Comets If you want to go hunting for comets in the Southern Sky you might be able to spot 289P/Blanpain. It starts the month at 10.2 magnitude so not very bright, but by the end of the month it will be 8.8, and quite close to the Helix nebula. Another one worth having a look for is C/2018 W2 Africano which starts the month at its brightest, at the Aquarius end of Pisces. On Friday the 4 October this comet will get about degree from Neptune so a great opportunity to get a photo of both of these icy cold objects. The comet will be at magnitude 10 and Neptune at 7.8. Another interesting comet that we might catch a glimpse of is P/2008 Y12 Soho. This one will be approaching closer and closer to the sun and can be found not far from Venus, so you’ll need a fantastic horizon and great conditions, it will brighten significantly as it gets near to the Sun, but that will also make it impossible to see.
The best time to see it will be tomorrow night when it is magnitude 4.4 about 4 degrees to the right of Mercury, and 21 degrees from the Sun so it should be high enough above the horizon and dark enough.
- The Moon is full on the 14th October and the New Moon is on 28 October. At 11pm on the 17th October the Moon gets very close to Pluto, though at magnitude 14.4 it will be well and truly overshadowed by the -10 magnitude Moon, kind of an almost occultation that you wouldn’t be able to see easily anyway.
On the 5th October it is international observe the Moon night, so get out there with your telescopes, binoculars, or just your eyes and take a moment to appreciate the celestial body that gives our planet a handy tilt, tides and a day that’s 24 hours long, without the Moon we may not have been able to climb out of the primordial soup at all.
- Mercury It’s a good time to see Mercury at the start of the month with it being a good 20 degrees from the Sun. Mercury should be easy to spot if you have a good Western horizon, just look for Venus, after sunset, almost on the horizon and then the next brightest, slightly orange thing above it is Mercury.
- Jupiter is always amazing to view, though it’s starting to get a bit further away from us, as compared to a month ago. At the start of the month the gas giant will take up 36 arcseconds of your eyepiece but by the end of the month this will have reduced to just a bit more than 33 arcseconds. Jupiter sets about 1:23am at the start of the month and by the end it is setting at 11:48pm.
You will be able to see Europa cross the planet’s disk on the 3rd in the early evening as soon as the Sun goes down, followed by Io again at around 9pm. The next good one to watch is on the 10th at 7:15pm when Europa and then shortly thereafter Io pass in front of Jupiter. Another one of these paired moons crossing starts at 10pm on the evening of the 18th as well. So there are plenty of opportunities to catch an eclipse on Jupiter this month.
- Saturn Over the course of the month Saturn gets about 100 million kilometres further away but starts in a good position for viewing. Saturn is almost a month behind Jupiter with it setting at 1:20am at the end of the month, and setting at the start of the month at 3:10am.
- Neptune Another planet that is worth taking a look at, though don’t expect to see much, is Neptune. This cold gas giant is over 4.3 billion kilometers away. It is so far away that it takes light from Neptune 4 hours to get to the Earth. You might be able to make out the hint of a disk, but at an apparent size of 2.4 arcseconds you may need to use a bit of imagination, though you will see the bluish hue of Neptune. You can find it by looking for the bright star Phi Aquarii in Aquarius and it’s about 40 arcminutes from that star.
- Uranus is also worth looking at if you happen to be up quite late as it doesn’t rise until about 10pm at the start of the month and 7:35pm by the end of the month. This planet is a bit closer at 2.8 billion kilometres and its apparent size is 3.7 arcseconds, so you shouldn’t need to use too much imagination to see the greenish hue of its disk.
- Happy Observe the Moon Night on the 5th October.
Odds and Ends
An interesting idea for making X-ray observations has been developed. Hard X-rays at high energies are very difficult to observe with the optics we have on our current missions. A new paper demonstrates a slightly different method of lens making for use in x-ray telescopes. The idea involves a stacked set of disks with prisms etched into them using UV lithography. From the results the paper presents, the idea looks promising.
A paper published in the journal Nature computed the mass of a millisecond pulsar by measuring a Shapiro delay in its pulse arrival times. It was estimated to weigh around 2.17 solar masses, making it the heaviest neutron star ever found, pushing the limits of what's thought possible for these objects. This measurement can help us understand what neutron stars are made of, and by extension how particles behave under the extreme pressures present in neutron star cores.
In 2022, ESA will be launching the JUICE mission. This exciting project will be sent to observe three of Jupiter's moons. The mission was planned to end with a controlled crash onto the surface, however this raises the question of our social responsibilities on other planets. Some moons cannot be crash landed on for fear of contamination, amongst other things, so where do we draw the line? This issue ties in with the recently emerging issue of space politics in general.
|Interview:||Sadie Jones and Alex Clarke|
|Night sky:||Ian Morison and Haritina Mogosanu|
|Presenters:||Michael Wright, Tiaan Bezuidenhout, and Mariam Rashid|
|Editors:||George Bendo, Alex Clarke, Deepika Venkattu, and Tom Scragg|
|Segment Voice:||Tess Jaffe|
|Website:||Fiona Porter and Stuart Lowe|
|Cover art:||K2-18b and K2-18c orbiting their red M-dwarf star. CREDIT: Alex Boersma|