Twitter Facebook Flickr YouTube

January 2018: New Year, New Missions

January 2018

In the show this time, we talk to Dr Allison Kirkpatrick about the use of infrared in the detection of star forming regions in other galaxies, Josh Hayes rounds up the latest news, and we find out what we can see in the January night sky from Ian Morison and Claire Bretherton.

The News

"That may have been one small step for Neil, but it's a heck of a leap for me." These are the words of Bruce McCandless, the first human to make an untethered space flight, who died on 21st December at the age of 80. McCandless was immortalised in what could be one of the most stunning photos ever taken when in 1984 he used a jetpack to fly, untethered, 100m away from the Space Shuttle Challenger. There were actually two Manned Manoeuvring Units (or MMUs) onboard the Challenger and with the help of his crewmate Robert Stewart, McCandless was the first to fly in both of them. He described the experience: "I was grossly overtrained. I was just anxious to get out there and fly... I'd been told of the quiet vacuum you experience in space, but with three radio links saying 'how's your oxygen holding out?', 'Stay away from the engines!', and 'When's my turn?' it wasn't that peaceful... It was a wonderful feeling, a mix of personal elation and professional pride: it had taken many years to get to that point."

In all the images of him during these flights, McCandless has his visor down so his face cannot be seen. Whilst this is due to him facing the Sun, in an interview with the Guardian in 2015, McCandles noted about the photo "It's also one of its main attractions: my anonymity means people can imagine themselves doing the same thing. Like Neil said in 1969, I was representing mankind up there." McCandless was more than just a guy in jet pack though. He actually helped design the MMUs, was part of the space shuttle crew which delivered the Hubble Space Telescope to orbit and was the mission control capsule communicator at Houston for the Apollo 11 mission, speaking to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin as they took their first steps onto the moon. All of us at the Jodcast would like to pay our respects to one of the great pioneers of space flight and pass on our condolences to his family.

Until the 14th December, the star Kepler-90 was known to host 7 planets, putting it just one planet off matching our own Sun. An AI built by Google discovered the faint signals of a transit by an 8th planet, placing Kepler-90 equal to the Sun in terms of the number of known planets it hosts. The AI was able to find a periodic dip in flux from the star which had been missed by human researchers and existing algorithms. This is an incredibly exciting leap forward in the use of machine learning techniques and identification algorithms in the fields of astronomy. Kepler-90 is slightly larger than the Sun, coming in at 1.2 times its mass and radius, and 6 of its planets are so called super-Earths, thought to be terrestrial, or mini-Neptunes, which straddle the line between terrestrial and ice giant. The other two planets are gas giants around the size of Jupiter.

There are several interesting things about this system. The planets are arranged similarly to our Solar System, with terrestrial planets closer to their host than the gas giants. This is currently the only other system where we have seen this, possibly due to selection biases with our detection methods where we are more likely to see so-called hot Jupiters. However, whilst Kepler-90's planets are arranged similarly to our own, they are much more closely packed. The entire system of 8 planets can fit inside the orbit of Earth, leading to them having particularly high temperatures. The discovery of this system is good news for planetary scientists, as it will allow us to further probe how large multi-planet systems form and evolve.

My mother always used to tell me not to pull faces in case the wind changed and I got stuck. On Jupiter, changing winds have been an even bigger problem, as until now we have had no explanation as to why Jupiter's jet stream changes direction around every 4 Earth years. Researchers using NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF) in Hawaii may have worked out the mechanism behind the mystery - gravity waves.

Gravity waves are waves in a fluid which are generated by the gravity of a planet, for example, the waves the wind causes in our oceans. They should not be confused with gravitational waves, which are waves in space time and generated by the motion of massive bodies. The team have proposed that gravity waves are set up by convection low in the atmosphere of Jupiter and then rise up to the stratosphere. These waves then lead to the jet stream over the equator to change direction, an effect known as quasi-quadrennial oscillation, or QQO.

The measurements required to understand this process were made using the Texas Cross Echelle Spectrograph mounted on the IRTF. This instrument allowed for measurement of the motion of thin vertical strips of Jupiter's atmosphere which led to the current theory. Jupiter is not unique in exhibiting this phenomenon. Earth's jet stream changes direction about every 28 months and Saturn's changes around every 15 Earth years. Understanding how this process can occur, and the effects which it produces means that we can explore how atmospheres in a variety of planets behave, evolve and contribute to the features of the planet.

Interview with Dr Allison Kirkpatrick

Tom Scragg and Josh Hayes talk to Dr. Allison Kirkpatrick from Yale about the use of infrared in the detection of star forming regions in other galaxies.

The Night Sky

Northern Hemisphere

Ian Morison tells us what we can see in the northern hemisphere night sky during January 2018.

  • Jupiter. Jupiter is now a pre-dawn object rising some three and a half hours before the Sun at the beginning of the month with its 33 arc second disk, shining at a magnitude of -1.8, to be seen under clear skies. As the month progresses, its apparent diameter increases to 35.8 arc seconds and it brightens to magnitude -2. The elevation before dawn will then be sufficiently high to enable crisp views of the giant planet to be seen with the equatorial bands, sometimes the Great (but reducing in size) Red Spot and up to four of its Galilean moons visible in a small telescope.

  • Saturn. Saturn passed behind the Sun on December 21st (superior conjunction) on December 21st and reappears in the pre dawn sky this month at the start of its new apparition. It is unlikely to be seen in the first week of January, but climbs higher and so becomes easier to spot as the month progresses as its brightness increases to +0.6 magnitudes. The rings were at their widest a few months ago and are still well open.

  • Mercury. Mercury reaches greatest elongation west on New Year's Day shining at magnitude -0.3. It will be seen low in the Southeast before dawn and will be visible for a couple of weeks before sinking back towards the Sun. Its angular diameter reduces from 6.7 to 4.9 arc seconds but, as the percentage illuminated surface area increases from 62% to 95%, its brightness remains constant throughout the month.

  • Mars. At the start of the month Mars lies in Libra but moves down into Scorpius at the end of the Month. A morning object at the start of its new apparition, it rises four hours or so earlier than the Sun. During the month, Mars has a magnitude increasing from 1.5 to 1.2 and an angular size of just 4.8, increasing to 5.6, arc seconds so no details will be seen on its salmon-pink surface. Moving eastwards, Mars has a very close conjunction with Jupiter on the 6th of January.

  • Venus. Venus, passes through superior conjunction (on the far side of the Sun) on January 9th and so cannot be observed this month.

  • Highlights

  • Around the 17th of January (with no Moon in the sky): find M31 - The Andromeda Galaxy - and perhaps M33 in Triangulum Around new Moon (17th January) - and away from towns and cities - you may also be able to spot M33, the third largest galaxy after M31 and our own galaxy in our Local Group of galaxies. It is a face on spiral and its surface brightness is pretty low so a dark, transparent sky will be needed to spot it using binoculars (8x40 or, preferably, 10x50).

  • January 5th before dawn: A waning Moon closes on Regulus in Leo. If clear before dawn on the 5th, a waning Moon between Full Moon and Last Quarter lies just a few degrees from Regulus in Leo.

  • January 6th before dawn: Mars and Jupiter up close. If clear before dawn on the 6th and looking to the South-Southeast, Mars, at magnitude 1.4 will be seen just to the right of Jupiter shining at magnitude -1.8. At their closest they will be just 23 arc seconds apart.

  • January 13th before dawn: Saturn and Mercury. Looking Southeast before dawn on the 13th and given a very low eastern horizon, one might be able to spot Saturn at the start of its new apparition lying just above Mercury. A very thin crescent Moon will be seen up to their right. Binoculars may well be needed but please do not use them after the Sun has risen.

  • January 26th: Two Great Lunar Craters. This is a great night to observe two of the greatest craters on the Moon, Tycho and Copernicus, as the terminator is nearby.

  • Southern Hemisphere

    Claire Bretherton from the Carter Observatory in New Zealand speaks about the southern hemisphere night sky during January 2018.

    This month we will continue our tour of some of the clusters and nebulae along the Milky Way, which stretches across the eastern sky after dark, becoming brightest in the south towards the Southern Cross /Te Punga.

  • Orion still dominates our Eastern skies after dark. Just above and to the right of Sirius, at distance of around 4 degrees, is M41, or NGC 2287. M41 is an open cluster of stars, covering an area around the size of the full moon. It is just about visible as a blurry smudge to the naked eye from a clear, dark location. Through binoculars or a small telescope you will start to resolve a number of individual stars, showing hints of red and orange, including a prominent 6.3 magnitude K3 giant close to the cluster's centre.

  • Canopus. Canopus is the brightest star in the constellation of Carina, the keel, which along with Vela, the sails, and Puppis, the poop deck, once formed part of the southern constellation of Argo Navis. Straddling the Milky Way, this represented the great ship used by Jason and the Argonauts in their search for the Golden Fleece. The constellation was split into the three components used today by French Astronomer Nicolas Louis de Lacaille in 1763.

  • Eta Carina. Eta Carinae is now back to around 4th magnitude, but it is brightening again. It is expected to end its life in a huge supernova within the next few thousand years.

  • Nebulae in Eta Carinae. Also worth looking out for in Carina is NGC 2516, known as the southern beehive, located just above the false cross, and NGC 3532, the football cluster, or wishing well cluster. Both are visible to the naked eye, but a good pair of binoculars will reveal a stunning view. NGC 3532 in particular is a great target, a favourite of English astronomer John Herschel, and the very first object to be observed by the Hubble Space Telescope in May 1990. You'll find it roughly half way between Crux and the False Cross, close to Eta Carinae.

  • Planets. Mercury sits low in the morning twilight throughout most of January and is soon joined by Saturn, with the two sitting right next to each other on the morning of the 13th. Saturn continues to rise higher whilst Mercury, on its inner orbit, sinks back into the twilight.

  • Wishing you clear skies, and a very happy 2018, form the team here at Space Place at Carter Observatory.

    Odds and Ends

    The European Southern Observatory recently announced that a new instrument had begun operations on the Very Large Telescope. The instument, which is called the Echelle SPectrograph for Rocky Exoplanet and Stable Spectroscopic Observations or ESPRESSO, is a spectrometer designed to measure the slight velocity changes in stars caused by gravitational interactions with planets. The instrument is capable of detecting motions as small as a few centimetres per second; for reference, typical walking speeds are around 1.5 metres per second. Given this and the instrument's capability to work with the combined light from all four of the 8 metre telescopes at the VLT, ESPRESSO should lead to new breakthroughs in exoplanet science. More information is available from the press release on the ESO website.

    We take a look at highlights of the upcoming year in space missions and the science they're expected to do. ISRO's Chandrayaan-2 and CNSA's Chang'e 4 are due to go to the Moon, and NASA is due to send InSight to Mars. BepiColombo, a joint ESA and JAXA mission, will hopefully find its way to Mercury with its two satellite components. ESA's Solar Orbiter and NASA's Parker Solar Probe will be launched to study the Sun, and TESS (the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) will continue to expand our exoplanet discoveries. Fingers crossed for punctual and successful launches!

    On the 3rd of December WMAP team wins the breakthrough prize in fundamental physics for mapping the cosmic microwave background. We discuss the impact of their work, which lead to a deeper understanding of the origins of the universe. We also discuss the various science prizes on offer.

    Show Credits

    News:Josh Hayes
    Interview:Dr. Allison Kirkpatrick and Tom Scragg and Josh Hayes
    Night sky:Ian Morison and Claire Bretherton
    Presenters:Emma Alexander, George Bendo, and Joel Williams
    Editors:Naomi Asabre Frimpong, George Bendo, Nialh McCallum, and Tom Scragg
    Segment Voice:Tess Jaffe
    Website:Josh Hayes and Stuart Lowe
    Producer:Josh Hayes
    Cover art:WMAP CREDIT: NASA/WMAP Science team

    Download Options

    Subscribe (It's free)