Saturday, October 20, 2012

Near Neighbor

Image Credit: (c) Peter Lake - Southern Cross and Pointers - SSO, Cannon 550D SLR

One of the most prominent stars is the southern hemisphere made headlines this week as a team of astronomers, using the ESO Harps Instrument on the 3.6m La Silla observatory in Chile, announced the discovery of an earth sized planet around our closest star.

“Our observations extended over more than four years using the HARPS instrument and have revealed a tiny, but real, signal from a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri B every 3.2 days,” says Xavier Dumusque (Geneva Observatory, Switzerland and Centro de Astrofisica da Universidade do Porto, Portugal), lead author of the paper. “It’s an extraordinary discovery and it has pushed our technique to the limit!”

Image Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/Nick Risinger (

Much of the recent news of Extrasolar planet discovery has centered around the Kepler Space Telescope mission, only this week Chris Lintott's & Meg Schwab's team at also announced the first citizen science discovery of a planet in a 4 star system....come to think of it that has a nice ring to it. ;-)

Back south though, at Siding Spring Observatory which has an exceptional dark southern horizon, Alpha Centauri never sets, as the brightest star in the "Pointers" near the Southern Cross, at its worst it grazes the southern horizon.

Alpha Centauri is a great small telescope target that I regularly show school students. The double take gasp that occurs, when they look at one star visually then suddenly realize, through the telescope, there are actually two stars usually gives way to a comment like "No way!" or the these days "What the?", as they back away from the eye piece and look again visually and take another look through the eyepiece - as if they are a scientist with two irreconcilable datasets. See there IS little bit of scientist in us all! Finally it all gives way to an extended WWWOOOooowwww!

Image Credit: ESO, IAU and Sky & Telescope

Now we can tell the students that there is a little "earth sized" planet, (but really more like an earth sized "Mercury") orbiting the fainter of the two stars Alpha Centauri b. Of course Alpha Centauri is actually a triple star system, but the much fainter (again) third star, Promixa Centauri is not resolvable in small scopes.

Emerging Kepler data shows us that planets around stars are pretty much the rule not the exception and its interesting to see the different techniques for detecting them.

“This is the first planet with a mass similar to Earth ever found around a star like the Sun. Its orbit is very close to its star and it must be much too hot for life as we know it,” adds Stéphane Udry (Geneva Observatory), a co-author of the paper and member of the team, “but it may well be just one planet in a system of several. Our other HARPS results, and new findings from Kepler, both show clearly that the majority of low-mass planets are found in such systems. This result represents a major step towards the detection of a twin Earth in the immediate vicinity of the Sun. We live in exciting times!” concludes Xavier Dumusque.

So next time you use the "pointers" to point out the southern cross and south celestial pole, remember you are also looking at what will always be the closest earth sized planet - our near neighbor, or as we still reserve the right in Australia to reject US based spell checkers, not only is it upside down it can also be - Near Neighbour!

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Comet Hergenrother in Outburst

Today we are broadcasting live an interview with Carl Hergenrother and several astronomers across Asia.

Comet 168P Hergenrother has gone into outburst, and brightened several magnitudes. We take a look at a number of great images of the comet and discuss with Carl why this might have happened.

Carl was on the Catalina Sky Survey team and is now the Co-Lead Staff scientist on the OSIRIS-REx Target Asteroid mission.


Friday, October 5, 2012

Astroswanny at Siding Spring

Joining us virtually in a Google+ Hangout live from South Australia was Dr Ian Musgrave who caught the grazing Occulation of Jupiter by the Moon early in the morning.

A great interview with Peter from the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the ANU.

Here is our first live cross on the mountain as the guys took over the most amazing "office space" in the southern hemisphere.

The wonders of truly dark sky are simply breathtaking!

As a young boy, I went on camping trips with the family to some of Australia's most amazing and remote national parks. Armed with a banged up old pair of binoculars, that my Dad bought to watch Greg Chappel's magnificent cover drives at the Gabba, I would sit for hours sweeping the heavens, marveling at the majesty above.

Warrumbungle Ranges National park was my favorite, although very hot during summer, which limited some of the walks we did, it had the additional advantage of being the Astronomy Capital of Australia.

Nearly four decades later, as I sit on top of the mountain near the 3.9m AAT, I marvel at the fact the skies are still as dark and amazing as ever, yet perhaps I appreciate them even more now.

On this trip I bought my 14inch Skywatcher which has a whole lot of light pulling power! Not that you need it, with some Messier objects being naked eye standouts, I was again blown away by the incredible beauty. The Tarantula Nebula almost filled the entire field of view.

The purpose of me being here, this time, is to assist with the Siding Spring Observatory Open Day tomorrow the 6th. Like me four decades ago, hundreds will descend on the SSO tomorrow and many will capture the passion of Astronomy for the first time.

With the new observatory nearing completion a new chapter will begin making the mountain more accessible to everyone, promoting the great work of everyone at the Anglo Australian Observatory, the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics and the ANU, creating great opportunities and pathways into the grad programs for the next generation of scientists. observatory will bring great photographic opportunities to the southern skies, better coverage of the Variable star catalog, more eyes on the approaching asteroids.

Last night I spent hours out under the stars, not doing anything in particular, just bouncing around to various Nebula and globular clusters. Playing with my DSLR and fine tuning things. This photo shows all the trials and pit falls of astro-photography.

Image Credit - Peter Lake - M17 Swan Nebula Dobbie and a DSLR ;-)

You can see the collimation of the telescope is not the best, the focus is slightly off and the 15 sec image shows some traking issues. Not surprising for the type of dobbie, and given I threw it together as fast as I could. Having taken some test shots, I can fix the collimation, and get the camera in better focus.

All this off course is easy (most of the time) on my other telescope the magnificent beast that is iT11. You can see the difference that the tried and proven routines of the scopes bring, why it takes alot of the pain out of the process. Sometimes its fun, just to tinker and refresh your skills at the eye piece, see what you can actually get out of a DSLR that isn't chilled to -35 degress, but just relax and take the time to soak it all up.

Image Credit: Peter Lake - M17 Swan Nebula iT11
So, I'll be out again tonight, and see if I can improve on last nights efforts. If you are around tomorrow and want to come up to Siding Spring and enjoy the open day - come say hi.


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