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August 2020: Sights Scarce Seen

August 2020

In the show this time, we talk to Rosita Kokotanekova about her work on Jupiter family comets, George Bendo rounds up the latest news, and we find out what we can see in the August night sky from Ian Morison, Haritina Mogosanu and Samuel Leske.

The News

This month in the news: the recovery from the COVID-19 epidemic, and the delay of the James Web Space Telescope.

Back in March and April when various governments around the world imposed lockdowns related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the astronomical community overall was notably affected. Quite a few observatories were forced to close, but not all. Observatories at locations such as Kitt Peak in Arizona, Mauna Kea in Hawaii, La Palma in the Canary Islands, and La Silla and Paranal in Chile all shut down. However, some telescopes that operate remotely, including some ground based telescopes like Pan-STARRS in Hawaii and many observatories in space including the Hubble Space Telescope, continued to operate. Additionally, the South Pole Telescope, where the telescope operators had been physically isolated from the rest of the world since the 15th of February, were able to continue to observe.

In addition to this, many other astronomy-related meetings and other events were affected. Several events at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, that were related to the 30th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope were cancelled or postponed. The National Astronomy Meeting in the United Kingdom, which was supposed to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the foundation of the Royal Astronomical Society, was postponed to next year. However, other events and meetings have been going ahead, many in a virtual format, as was the case for both the 236th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society and the European Astronomical Society Annual Meeting for 2020 (EWASS 2020).

However, various astronomical observatories around the world that shut down earlier this year are slowly restarting observations. For example, some of the observatories on Mauna Kea, including Keck Observatory, resumed operations back in May. However, many other observatories at other sites, including the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in the United States and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, are still shut down.

The shutdown even affected the staff and students in Manchester who work at Jodrell Bank Observatory. Both the Lovell Telescope and e-MERLIN were shut down on the 17th of March, and except for a skeleton crew who remained on site for safety reasons, everyone was required to work from home. However, starting at the beginning of June, individual radio antennae were re-activated, and the e-MERLIN array is now operational. Having said that, access to Jodrell Bank Observatory or other University of Manchester facilities is still limited, and many people are still working from home.

The various coronavirus lockdowns have not only affected the operation of astronomical observatories and other research activities but have also affected the construction of new observatories, with the Vera Rubin Observatory being one of the most notable examples of this. Then lockdowns have also affected the schedules of various space-based observatories that have not been launched yet. The most notable delay has been of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is the optical and near-infrared telescope that will succeed the Hubble Space Telescope.

This is an observatory whose launch has been delayed multiple times before. When first conceived, scientists envisioned that the JWST would be launched in 2007, but various technical and managerial challenges as well as issues with contractors caused the launch to be delayed multiple times and also led to budget overruns. Earlier this year, the launch date was set for March 2021. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic forced work to stop briefly in March, and then work resumed at only a limited capacity for a couple of months after that, which slowed down a lot of the tests being performed on the spacecraft. Clearly, these delays would push the launch date back. However, NASA had other reasons to reschedule the launch. Even before the lockdown, a part of the JWST development schedule called schedule reserve, which is time that is intended to be used to handle unforeseen issues, had run low, so the delay allows more schedule reserve to be added to the overall schedule. Also, more time has been added to the schedule to perform a series of additional tests on the telescope. Hopefully, the telescope's launch will not be delayed much further.

Interview with Rosita Kokotanekova

Dr. Rosita Kokotanekova talks about her work on Jupiter family comets. She discusses how they form, how they migrate from the outer solar system and why this makes them important for studying the formation of the early solar system.

The Night Sky

Northern Hemisphere

Ian Morison tells us what we can see in the Northern Hemisphere night sky during August 2020.

The Planets


Southern Hemisphere

Haritina Mogosanu and Samuel Leske from the Carter Science Centre in New Zealand speaks about the Southern Hemisphere night sky during August 2020.

In August 2020 we have a couple of spectacular planets in the evening sky, Jupiter and Saturn, the centre of our galaxy climbs at zenith and with it all the beautiful deep sky objects that we are so looking forward to seeing every year. Unfortunately for us, although there are many meteor showers in the northern part of the sky, they are quite low on the horizon for us to enjoy them as northern hemispherians do. Here is what’s in the sky in August.



Deep Sky

Odds and Ends

Large asteroid impacts on Earth are incredibly rare and infrequent, but a serious strike could have severe environmental impacts, and at present we have no way of stopping one – just predicting which asteroids might become dangerous in the future. Asteroid redirection is a concept that might be able to protect us from these events, the idea being to knock the asteroid out of a collision-course orbit by hitting it with a spacecraft. This concept is being trialled by an upcoming 2022 NASA mission called DART (the Double Asteroid Redirection Test), which is aiming to crash a spacecraft into an asteroid named Dimorphos to alter its orbit around the larger asteroid Didymos. By testing this out on asteroids in a binary orbit, NASA hopes to be able to study in detail how the redirection alters Dimorphos' orbit and behaviour. In addition to this, the impact of DART upon Dimorphos is expected to leave a 20m crater on the 160m asteroid, allowing study of crater formation and Dimorphos' surface properties as well.

We reflect on comet NEOWISE as it fades away from view. It truely was a comet that captured the imagination of many, including people outside of the astronomy community. Visible from even the most light-polluted city centres (as Emma verifies in the case of Manchester), those who got lucky with the weather were able to see it far and wide. Going out to darker skies yielded even more majestic views, for example this capture of NEOWISE and the Lovell telescope from Jodrell Bank's very own Anthony Holloway (this show's cover image!), and this beautiful view of the comet and noctilucent clouds from listener Mary McIntyre.

A recent paper presented observations of a new type-Ia supernova, i.e. one involving a binary system with at least one white dwarf star. These are common occurrences, but this one was unique in being accompanied by a flash of UV radiation. Many have theorised that such UV radiation would be an indication of the kind of companion that was once orbiting the white dwarf. As the supernova unfolds over a matter of weeks to months, its behaviour will be monitored to further constrain models and to better understand the physics involved in this class of supernova. This is important because type-Ia supernovae are the main source of iron in the universe, and understanding them will help study planet formation, among others. They are also used as standard candles for measuring cosmological distances and calculating Dark Energy estimates.

Show Credits

News:George Bendo
Interview:Rosita Kokotanekova and Michael Wright
Night sky:Ian Morison, Haritina Mogosanu and Samuel Leske
Presenters:Fiona Porter, Tiaan Bezuidenhout, and Emma Alexander
Editors:Crispin Agar, Joseph Winnicki, George Bendo, Lizzy Lee, and Michael Wright
Segment Voice:Tess Jaffe
Website:Fiona Porter and Stuart Lowe
Producer:Fiona Porter
Cover art:Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) overhead the Lovell Telescope early on 12th July 2020. CREDIT: Anthony Holloway

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