Thursday, May 29, 2014

Comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko - First amateur images 2014

As the European Space Agency's Rosetta Mission ramps up in a busy week of astronomy, Observatory W96 and Observers A. Maury, J.-G Bosch, J.-F. Soulier were the first amateurs to report positions of 69P (this apparition) to the MPC. Amateur images of Comet 67P have also been acquired by the Professional-Amateur Collaboration in Astronomy (PACA) for comet 67P led by Dr Padma Yanamandra-Fisher in partnership with Amateur Astronmers. The PACA group uses social media to connect amateur and professional astronomers to provide observation follow-up, monitoring and collaboration on science missions.

Comet 67P is about to be visited by the Rosetta Probe and ESA released their first photos, 2 weeks ago, of the comet starting to come to life as it heads on in towards the sun. The Rosetta mission is to follow the comet round the sun during the part of its orbit where the ices and dusts begin to discharge and form the tail. In november 2014, Rosetta will deliver a landed named Philae that will touch down on the nucleus of the comet to sample the particles as they become active.

Pictured here at a very faint magnitude 21.2 you can see Comet 67P, and the position of the Rosetta spacecraft is also marked (even though it is way too faint to see). ESA this week began a number of engine burns to slow the spacecraft as it approaches the comet.

The star field is quite crowded, and one of the most interesting parts of the video is the amount of "traffic" in this part of the sky. There were about 6 clearly identifiable asteroids in the full field of view, I have labelled a couple of the closer ones for reference. One asteroid in the field of view caught my eye as it seemed to dip in brightness, so it has been noted for further follow up as it approaches opposition in July.

Capturing the comet at such a faint magnitude required a deep "stacking" of images to account for the movement of the comet. "Stacking" is a process used to add a number of images together to improve the signal to noise ratio of the target. The comet was travelling so slowly relative to our point of view that I was able to resolve it with 12x300 second images. These images were then stacked in three groups of 4 at the movement of the comet - 0.16arc"/min at a position angle of 226 degrees. My images were quickly followed up by Rolando Ligustri, Bacci Paolo Backman. The astrometry (positional information) was included in MPEC 2014-K54

Previously in 2012, amateurs using the the Faulkes Telescopes had photographed 67P at aphelion (its furtherest point from the sun), also a remarkable effort!. In January 2014 the large telescopes in Chile, European Southern Observatory (ESO) and the Very Large Telescope (VLT) recovered 67P and have been following it regularly, this was the first occasion that amateurs had obtained images on this apparition.

For more information about the program check out the Year of Southern Comets article at PACA has a Facebook and Flikr group for members and a website under construction, it is open to any amateur astronomers who have their own telescope, are familiar with photometry and astrometry, are members of, or have access to other telescope facilities and are prepared to work as a team on the science effort.

The Rosetta Spacecraft was named after the Rosetta Stone which assisted historians and archeologists decipher the Egyptian hieroglyphs, scientists hope that in the same way the data gathered will assist in our understanding of the early solar system.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

#GRBm31 a teaching moment in the internet of things

Any doubts that the Internet of Things had arrived these were dispelled in an instant today. The Swift space telescope, the senitnel for detecting Gamma Ray Bursts raised an alert on the Gamma Ray Co-Ordinates Network, and slewed to the target to begin imaging. Astronomers around the world scrambled for their personal devices, re-tweeting their excitement, rallying the observational firepower available to image a tiny area in the Andromeda Galaxy (M31).

Image Credit: Swift Spacecraft, computer generated drawing. NASA E/PO, Sonoma State University, Aurore Simonet.

#GRBm31 surged to the very top of Twitter's trending list and the "lightcurve" of social media activity almost matched the supposed outburst of Gamma rays or Ultra Luminous X-rays (ULX) heading our way. [See Scott Manley's amusing tweet.] The whole event of course prompted the usual round of "milli-second humor" and hilarious tweets. Like: "What, something in a galaxy far, far away just blew up" and the usual round of deathstar references and starwars humor.

What happened will be discussed energetically over the next weeks, but it appears it was what the IT Industry would call a false positive, but not necessarily a bad thing.

Social media and the Internet of Things (IP devices intelligently wired to elevate raw data to the status of information, knowledge and wisdom that can be acted on) has the benefit of the instantaneous alert. However these alerts require context and verification. In this case scientists around the world rallied to verify the result using their standard methods and found a perfectly logical and rational reason as to why the alert was triggered, but there was no GRB or ULX event. The science team for the LIGO Gravity Wave detector, which was was offline for an upgrade, were relieved they hadn't missed anything.

What we actually had was a great teaching moment.SpaceI09 Blog was quick out of the blocks with a brilliant article on GRBs and what was happening. Science as always requires confirmation of results and over the next few hours alot of effort and comparison of results identified that a known Xray source had popped up above a detection threshold, possibly due to a nearby "hot pixel" in the image.

Nick Howes from the Faulkes Telescope Project suggested on Twitter "the neat thing about it was now lots more people know about GRBs an ULXs", and I certainly concur.

The lesson here is that instantaneous alerts come with their own set of risks, but if the communication flow is well managed and carefully explained to everyone, a situation like this can be a great opportunity to build a broader awareness of what has transpired.

Image Credit: P.Lake 300 Sec Luminance of the area in M31 concerning the alert.

Essentially an alert was triggered in the area between the two marked stars.

Of course there are the naysayers who have instant opinions as well and criticise organisations like NASA in situations like this. If a very bright GRB had gone off in Andromeda, astronomers would have years of data laid down for research over the coming years that would have had very broad implications particularly in gravity waves, neutron stars and black hole research. If it had gone off in our galaxy it would have been very, very serious situation indeed.

There will be a round of investigations and review and the process of teasing out the knowledge and wisdom derived from the raw data and the alert process will be better for it.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Saturn Occultation by the moon - May 14 2014

Thanks for joining us tonight for the live hangout on air. Enjoy!

Not really ideal. The full moon was shining through thin cloud washing out a bit of the detail. The telescope is still ste up hopefully the cloud will clear and I can get some better stills on the egress.

Live hangouts and driving a telescope live is a tricky business. I lost focus playing around trying to improve the image due to the thin cloud. Managed to get it back into focus just as it was disappearing. The relative motion is pretty quick once you see them that close together.

One hour and ten minutes later it re-emerges with the moon a little clearer now, but surrounded by a bright halo. This time I am directly imaging it with the DLSR as well, so a really nice couple of shots on egress.

And so..... The moon drifts on towards full lunation later tonight, as Saturn slips behind it.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The curious case of Asteroid 2014 HQ124 (PHA)

UPDATE: Jun 13th

I was right there is a big hole in that asteroid!!!! See my May 20th lightcurve below. The brilliant images from Goldstone and Arecibo Radar are on NASA's Website Here. Is it just me or does it look like an Oscar? Certainly an Oscar winning performance by the radar teams.

UPDATE: June 8th

Well asteroid 2014 HQ124 has crossed over into the daytime sky for now, I missed the last chance to get images of it due to high humidity and the roof being shut. Goldstone are lining up for their first run, can't wait to see their photos.

UPDATE: June 7th

Nice recognition by NASA of the amateur effort on this one!

UPDATE: June 6th 2014

Goldstone Radar is geared up for one of the best runs in recent years. They will have some brilliant images of this object. The most interesting thing determined so far is that it's Albedo is quite high at 0.35 which is unusual. On May 20th I ran quite a long session on it (by request) and was able to provide some good astrometry and photometry. It would appear to have a few bumps in it as there was some shape to my partial light curve. I am attempting some additional images in the morning, but the humidity has been a bit high the last few mornings and the roof has been shut - here's hoping for tomorrow.

IMAGE CREDIT: (C)P.Lake Q62 - 30 x 180 sec images were used to determine magnitude against the UCAC4 Catalog.

Its not unusual for asteroids to whiz past earth inside or just outside the orbit of the moon, (1 lunar distance). What is less common these days, is to detect a new, previously unknown, ~300-550m wide Asteroid approaching to 3 Lunar distances.

Asteroid 2014 HQ124 is interesting for a number of reasons. Approaching quietly in the pre-dawn twilight, out of reach of all but the most southern telescopes, it is inclined to the plane of the solar system by 26 degrees and it is currently at -71 degrees declination. This is a little unusual for an object that big, although not without precedent.

2014 HQ124 was discovered by the WISE (Wide Field Infrared Survey). WISE is not only a wide field survey but a versatile space telescope that has produced a wide range of data, including galactic surveys, discovering 19 comets, finding earth's first trojan asteroid, and recently eliminating the possibility of a Planet X greater than or equal to the size of Neptune (ie something as big as Uranus and Neptune would have been detected if it was there).

The galactic survey work was largely complete by 2011 when it was put into hibernation. Recently in 2013 it was bought back online as NEOWISE to continue its asteroid work. 2014 HQ124 was detected on April 23rd and likely would not have been seen by earth based telescopes until much later (towards June). So it is still serving a very useful "scouting" role. A number of deep south small observatories and amateurs have now extended the arc to >12 days and I was able to capture it early this morning automatically from Siding Spring Observatory Q62, one hour before I evacuated myself from my warm bed.

As a space telescope, NEOWISE is able to get observations from some otherwise hard to get to spots in the sky, and as an infrared survey its has been tasked at the dark carbonaceous asteroids that are bright in the infrared spectrum.

With the retirement of the E12 Survey in 2013, it has been all hands on deck in the deep southern skies and NEOWISE is clearly fulfilling a useful role.


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