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January 2019: Missions: past and present!!

January 2019

In the show this time, we talk to Chris Flynn about Observing Fast Radio Bursts, plus using the Moon to study climate change and Gaia to weigh the Milky Way, George Bendo rounds up the latest news, and we find out what we can see in the January night sky from Ian Morison, Haritina Mogosanu, and Samuel Leske.

The News

In the news this month: the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 8 mission, the recent New Horizons fly-by, and the Chinese Moon landing.

First, the 21st of December marked the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Apollo 8 mission. Apollo 8 did not land people on the Moon, but it was an important step to an eventual Moon landing.

The mission was a general part of the Space Race in the 1960s, where the United States and the Soviet Union vied to demonstrate which country could produce the grandest achievements in space exploration. The Soviet Union had been the first nation to orbit a satellite around the Earth in 1957 and the first to send a person into space in 1961. Earlier in 1968, the Soviet Union had been the first to launch unmanned missions that had returned from the Moon. These missions were seen as preparation steps by the Soviet Union to send a manned mission to the Moon. NASA had been planning to use Apollo 8 to test their lunar spacecraft in orbit around the Earth, but plans were changed to send the spacecraft to the Moon and back.

The mission was an overall success. Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders became the first people to travel to another body in space. They also took multiple photos of both the Moon and the Earth, including a very famous Earthrise photos from when the orbiter had passed around the far side of the Moon. The lessons from the mission were applied to later missions, including Apollo 11, which was the first to land people on the Moon.

Next in the news, on the 1st of January, the New Horizons spacecraft flew by a Kuiper Belt object given the official name of 2014 MU69 but nicknamed Ultima Thule. The Kuiper Belt is a collection of icy bodies found in orbit just outside the orbit of Neptune and is thought to be the source of many short-period comets like Halley's Comet. Pluto, which New Horizons flew by in 2015, is the largest of the Kuiper Belt objects. Ultima Thule is thought to be more representative.

Ultima Thule was revealed to consist of two spheroidal bodies of slightly different sizes that combined have a width of about 31 kilometers across. The two separate parts of the object are thought to have come together very gently during the very early stages of the Solar System. Since then, the object has changed relatively little. Because the density of objects in the Kuiper Belt is very low, Ultima Thule has not been affected by impacts or gravitational interactions with other objects. Because Ultima Thule is very far from the Sun, the ices have not melted or sublimated over time. Additionally, because Ultima Thule is so small, it has not undergone any type of geological or geothermal activity as seen on planets. Hence, Ultima Thule is similar to what objects from the early formation of the Solar System look like. However, the surface object has been exposed to large numbers of cosmic rays over time, and this has transformed the ices on the surface of the object into a very dark coating of organic material with a reddish hue. While the first images have been released to the general public, more scientific analyses are likely to be published on the data in the upcoming months and years.

Finally, on the 3rd of January, the Chinese probe Chang'e-4 landed on the far side of the Moon. This was the first science mission to the surface of far side of the Moon. Most other spacecraft have landed on the near side of the Moon, although a few other spacecraft have crashed onto the far side either deliberately or accidentally. This also marks the first time that China's space agency has been able to do something that no other nation's space agency has done.

The landing is not just a symbolic achievement. The far side of the Moon is geologically different from the near side. The surface is more heavily cratered, and the far side has fewer of the smooth maria areas. The probe actually landed within the Von Karman Crater, which is one of the few smooth locations on the far side. A scientific analysis of the surface may reveal differences in the chemistry or history of the surface compared to the near side of the Moon.

Interview with Chris Flynn

In this interview Chris Flynn talks about observing Fast Radio Bursts, plus using the Moon to study climate change and Gaia to weigh the Milky Way.

The Night Sky

Northern Hemisphere

Ian Morison tells us what we can see in the northern hemisphere's night sky during January 2019.

  • Note the Total Eclipse of the Moon on the morning of January 21st

    The Planets

    • Jupiter.Jupiter starts the month rising around 5 a.m., and brightens from magnitude -1.9 to -1.9 as the month progresses whilst its angular size increases slightly from 31.8 to 33.6 arc seconds. The highlights show how it combines with Venus to give us some wonderful views in the East before dawn.

    • Saturn.Saturn passes behind the Sun on the 2nd of January so will not be visible in the pre-dawn eastern sky until around the third week of the month shining with a magnitude of +0.6. With a disk of ~15 arc seconds across and with rings spanning over twice this, it will rise one and a half hours before the Sun by month's end.

    • Mercury.Mercury might just be glimpsed in the first few days of the month very low in the southeast just before sunrise shining at magnitude -0.4. Binoculars could well be needed as this reduces the background glare, but please do not use them after the Sun has risen.

    • Mars.Mars, though fading from +0.5 to +0.9 magnitudes during the month remains prominent in the southern sky after sunset at an elevation of ~36 degrees, increasing to 41 degrees during January as it moves north-eastwards across the constellation of Pisces. (If only it could have been at this elevation when at closest approach last year!) Its angular size falls from 7.5 arc seconds to 6 arc seconds during the month so one will not be able to spot any details on its salmon-pink surface.

    • Venus.Venus reaches greatest elongation west some 47 degrees away from the Sun on January 6th so dominates the eastern sky rising some 3 hours before the Sun. It begins January with a dazzling magnitude of -4.6. Its angular size reduces from 26.3 to 19.4 arc seconds during the month as it moves away from the Earth but, at the same time, the percentage illuminated disk (its phase) increases from 47% to 62% - which is why the brightness only reduces from -4.6 to -4.3 magnitudes. See the highlight above when it lies close to Jupiter.

    • Highlights

    • January 3rd - before dawn: Jupiter below a very thin crescent Moon.
    • Around the 6th of January (with no Moon in the sky): find M31 - The Andromeda Galaxy - and perhaps M33 in Triangulum.Around new Moon (6th Jan) - 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). Follow the two stars back from M31 and continue in the same direction sweeping slowly as you go. It looks like a piece of tissue paper stuck on the sky just a bit brighter than the sky background. Good Hunting!

    • January12th - evening: Mars above a waxing Moon.Looking south in the evening if clear, Mars will be seen lying above a waxing crescent Moon.

    • January 21st - a Total Eclipse of the Moon.If clear in the hours before dawn, we should be able to see a Total Eclipse of the Moon as it moves through the Earth's shadow at times indicated on the chart. It will be fully eclipsed from 04:41 to 05:43. A nice photo opportunity.

    • January 31st - just before dawn: a thin crescent Moon lies between Jupiter and Venus.If clear just before dawn, and given a low horizon towards the southeast, one should be able to see a thin waning crescent Moon lying between Jupiter (on its right) and Venus shining brightly to its left. A nice photo opportunity.

    • January 13th and 26th evening: The Hyginus Rille.For some time a debate raged as to whether the craters on the Moon were caused by impacts or volcanic activity. We now know that virtually all were caused by impact, but it is thought that the Hyginus crater that lies at the centre of the Hyginus Rille may well be volcanic in origin. It is an 11 km wide rimless pit - in contrast to impact craters which have raised rims - and its close association with the rille of the same name associates it with internal lunar events. It can quite easily be seen to be surrounded by dark material. It is thought that an explosive release of dust and gas created a vacant space below so that the overlying surface collapsed into it so forming the crater.

    • Southern Hemisphere

      Haritina Mogosanu and Samuel Leske tell us what we can see in the southern hemisphere's night sky during January 2019.

    • The Shining Ones.
    • Kia Ora from New Zealand. Hi everyone, We are here at Space Place at Carter Observatory holding Galactic Conversations from the heart of Wellington in the Southern Hemisphere, my favourite place to be, with the music of the amazing Rhian Sheehan, our Wellingtonian star composer, and we are Haritina Mogosanu and Samuel Leske. Space Place is our historical astronomy icon here in New Zealand and we are located right at the heart of our capital city. And we are so lucky to be among the capital cities in the world from where you can still see the Milky Way.

    • Summary. This time of the year we are looking straight into the edge of our galaxy, the Milky Way, as Orion is the main feature out there in the sky. While everyone in the Northern Hemisphere celebrates through the mid-winter festivities, here in the South we have the longest days and the shortest nights while roasting in sunshine. We have to wait all the way to 9 PM for the Sun to set. There is one planet visible with the naked eye in the early night sky, Mars. But if you are an early riser, you're in luck, all the other naked eye planets are in the morning sky. As for deep sky objects, the month is perfect for observing Orion and some of the objects from the Northern Hemisphere that sit below Orion in the Southern Sky, such as the fabulous Rosette Nebula and the elusive M74. Back to the south celestial region, we can still see the Magellanic Clouds and some awesome circumpolar objects, check out our videos on how to find them on Milky-Way. And did you know that this time of the year you can see the brightest, second brightest and third brightest star in the sky from here from Wellington? If you have a solar telescope you can admire a very quiet Sun. Almost no spots adorn the Sun but we will be watching it closely to see if any appear. (Do NOT look at the sun with a telescope, binoculars or even the naked eye without protection!) Watch for the Moon, it new on the first Sunday of the month, which means that's a good week for deep sky observations, and full on the third week, the 21st of January.

    • You must wake up very early in the morning to see the other planets, which are mostly in the morning sky, so if you're a morning person then you're in for a show. Venus, Jupiter and Mercury are all visible in the morning sky, as well as the Moon in the first week of the Month and Saturn at the end of the month. You can wake up as early as 3:30 for Venus, and Jupiter is rising up every morning earlier so it catches up with Venus around the 22nd when they will rise together and then Jupiter will move higher than Venus. Saturn will be rising around 4:30 in the morning at the end of the month. So who said the sky is only for the night owls? But what is there left for the night owls if everything is in the morning sky?

    • Planets. Mars is still in the evening sky although we will need to wait until 9 PM when the Sun sets and then look northwest. Mars is still bright so it should be easy to spot. Unseen to the naked eye, to the left of Mars is Neptune and to the right is Uranus. Uranus is 19 AU from the Sun, which is 162 light minutes away. Although you can see Uranus, which has a visual magnitude of 5.8 with the naked eye from a very dark place, for Neptune you will definitely need a telescope. Both are beautiful with a bluish tint.

    • Bright Stars. I really like this time of the year as it is the time when we can observe the brightest stars in the sky as here we are so lucky to see the first 3 of them in order of magnitude: So because this time of the year there are many distinctive bright stars in the night sky, I call it the season of the shining ones.

    • Constellations. Now about gastronomy, New Zealand has a lot of pots and pans in the night sky, fishes and squids and other marine creatures. The most famous of all is the Pot, also known as Orion's belt. The Pot is made by the three stars of Orion's belt and the handle is Orion's sword. Very famous constellation here. So not only there are pans and pots in the Southern Sky but there are also crosses. There's the Southern Cross, the Diamond Cross and the False Cross, and these are like official asterisms. That is if you ignore the fact that every combination of four stars can look like a cross. The great thing about them is that they are teeming with amazing deep sky objects. Such is the very famous Jewel Box open cluster near the Southern Cross. Two favourites of ours are the star clusters Omicron Velorum and NGC 2516 in the False Cross region, NGC 2516 is next Avior and Omicron Velorum is next to the star Delta Velorum.

    • Clusters. Talking about Omega Centauri, we must mention that in the Southern Hemisphere there are two monster globular clusters, Tucanae 47 and Omega Centauri. Omega Centauri is an amazing sight in the eyepiece as it fills the eye with millions of stars. And also remember that it doesn't really matter what you call the stars as long as you can remember where they are.

    • May you enjoy the beginning of another happy rotation around the sun! Thank you and Clear skies from Wellington!

    • Odds and Ends

    • A Holiday Asteroid. On Saturday 22 December, 2018 the large, near-Earth asteroid 2003 SD220 closely approached earth and this near encouter has provided astronomers an outstanding opportunity to obtain detailed radar images of the surface and shape of the object and to improve the understanding of its orbit. The radar measurements taken has helped to refine the understanding of 2003 SD220's orbit; confirming that it does not pose a future impact threat to Earth.
    • Dr Nancy Grace Roman passed away at the end of December aged 93. She was the first woman to hold an executive position at NASA as Chief of Astronomy, at NASA's Office of Space Science. She was known as the "Mother of Hubble", because of her work on the planning of the Hubble Space Telescope, which launched in 1990 is still going strong today. Among the other institutions she worked at were: Yerkes Observatory, The University of Chicago and The Naval Research Laboratory Radio Astronomy Program.
    • Researchers in the US detonated a 50 ton explosion under the Mojave desert. They picked up the vibrations from it using balloons with seismometers and other sensing equipment. This research could in future be used to study the geologic activity of the planet venus. It is very difficult to get a probe to function for long periods of time on the surface of Venus so working with balloons could be a useful alternative. The thicker atmosphere of Venus compared to Earth could actually be of use here as well, allowing seismic signals to propagate further through the atmosphere.
    • Show Credits

      News:George Bendo
      Interview:Chris Flynn and Emma Alexander
      Night sky:Ian Morison, Haritina Mogosanu, and Samuel Leske
      Presenters:Emma Alexander, George Bendo, Naomi Asabre Frimpong, Samuel Leske, Ian Morison, Haritina Mogosanu, Michael Wright and Duncan Zerafa
      Editors:George Bendo and Tom Scragg
      Segment Voice:Iain McDonald
      Website:Naomi Asabre Frimpong and Stuart Lowe
      Producer:Naomi Asabre Frimpong
      Cover art:Apollo 8 launch CREDIT: NASA

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