The On-again Off-again Comet ISON Is Fading Away

Comet ISON as captured by Trappist of ESO
Comet ISON near its brightest on Nov. 15, 2013 as captured by Trappist of ESO

Adding To the Buzz

The day after Thanksgiving, the internet was all a buzz with news of the comet’s survival, as it passed around the sun on Thanksgiving Day. This is good news for comet watchers and stargazers everywhere and as a result I could not let the day pass without throwing in my two cents worth. Even though ISON’s resurrection may only be a temporary reprieve from death in outer space, the situation has definitely given us comet watchers something to talk about.

Comets and Cats

On Turkey Day, the official skywatchers were calling Comet ISON D.O.A. Then one day later, they were using the cat analogy to salvage their scientific opinion. Most likely this descrepency was not so much due to incompetence, but rather, it may be related to the much improved view that  spacecraft such as the Hubble and SOHO can now provide. Never before has modern man received such a superb picture of a comet as it sped across the other side the sun. Nonetheless, it is a very humorous situation to hear the experts backpeddle and use the cat analogy as a defense, even though the premise that comets like cats are unpredictable….has been circulating around the blogosphere for several weeks…..ever since ISON underwent a sudden brightening in mid-November. Also, a corollary has developed;  comets like cats, can have nine lies.

The Pros Get It Wrong, Then Right

Now than a new week and a new month has started, it looks like ISON was a doomed comet….that like Icarus….it flew too close to the sun and died. Still, there is a trail of dust (that used to be ISON) moving away from the sun, but it is way too small to be observed by the human eye or even small telescopic devices. Chances that this mass will revive itself into a visible comet are close to zero. Nonetheless, it’s been a fun ride with the general public now being more aware of those faraway visitors from the outer reaches of our solar system. And scientists have gained a little better understanding as to what happens when a comet swings around the sun.

This image is NGC 6543 known as the Cat's Eye Nebula.  (X-ray: NASA/CXC/RIT/J.Kastner et al.; Optical: NASA/STScI)
This image is NGC 6543 known as the Cat’s Eye Nebula. (X-ray: NASA/CXC/RIT/J.Kastner et al.; Optical: NASA/STScI)
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Strange Happenings On Planet Earth Today

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A meteor streaked through the skies above Russia’s Chelyabinsk region , photo from UniverseToday

Central Russia Hit With Meteorites

Thanks to the popularity of dashboard cams the internet is abuzz with images and video footage of the meteor(s) that exploded high in the atmosphere near the city of Chelyabinsk, which is located in the Ural Mountains of Russia. According to news reports about a 1,000 people were treated for injuries, mostly from flying glass. Fortunately, no one was killed and none of the injuries were life-threatening.  The meteor strike occurred just hours before asteroid da14 passed close to the earth’s surface.

The Official Version

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Hole in ice caused by meteorite, from CNN

NASA asteroid expert Don Yeomans, head of the agency’s Near-Earth Object Program Office, was quoted as saying that the event in Russia was not linked to the close flyby of the large asteroid that occurred later on in the same day. Yeoman’s scientific opinion was confirmed by many other scientists including Richard Binzel of MIT, Paul Chodas of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif, Bill Cooke of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. as well as experts at the European Space Agency.

The Crackpots

Not everybody agreed with the scientific experts, including one Russian official named Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who said the explosion was the United States testing out a new nuclear device. Although the explosion had the force much greater than the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, it lacked the severe damage because the meteor blew up many miles above the surface of the earth.

The Minority Dissenters

Not everybody believed that the meteor (or meteors) that exploded in Russia were unrelated to the asteroid flyby. For there appeared to be a small cadre of scientists that believed the meteors exploding above Russia were in some way related to the large asteroid that passed by the earth much later in the same day. On CBS, Michio Kaku, a physics professor at the City University of New York, stated that asteroids often occur in swarms or “showers” and so the meteors that passed over Russia may have some connection to the larger asteroid.

Other scientists who share similar views include Tatiana Bordovitsina, an astronomy professor at Tomsk State University in western Siberia, Curtin University asteroid expert Phil Bland of Australia and Professor Ian Crawford of Birkbeck University, who said;  “if meteorites were traveling with the asteroid, they would be several hours ahead of it.”

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LL Ori and the Orion Nebula
Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team

Scientific Reality

I think that this difference in viewpoints among scientists is fascinating and that ultimately the minority view that the two events are related will prevail. History is just full of too many instances where the majority scientific opinion has been proven more, for me to think otherwise. No matter how this story turns stay in touch for the debate could be very interesting and entertaining.

Asteroid Flyby Tomorrow

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On Tomorrow February 15,2013 asteroid da14 will pass close by planet earth, image from NASA

How Close and How Big

This asteroid will pass about 17,000 miles from the surface of the earth. At it nearest point it will be closer than the moon and will travel inside the orbit of some satellites. When it does so the space rock will be nearest the South Pacific nation of Sumatra. This asteroid is estimated to be about 150 feet in diameter, which is approximately the same size as the one that hit the Siberian region of Russia in 1908. No ill effects are expected from tomorrow’s flyby.

Asteroid 2012 da14 Returns In 2020

This very same asteroid has an elliptical orbit around the sun and so it will pass by the earth again in another seven years, but it is not expected to hit the earth at this time, either. If an asteroid of this size were to strike the earth, it is estimated that the damage would be similar to the  Tunguska Event of 1908 that has already been mentioned above.

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Asteroids in the Distance
Image Credit: R. Evans & K. Stapelfeldt (JPL), WFPC2, HST, NASA

Following da14

Thanks to the internet and modern astronomical observing technology this close passby can be viewed via several different webcasts. These include our very own NASA, along with the Slooh Space Camera, Virtual Telescope Project (Italy) and Bareket Observatory (Israel). The NASA link gives amateur astronomers a chance to track the fast-moving object with a good pair of binoculars or a small telescope. The asteroid will first appear in the southern hemisphere near the Southern Cross and this point it will shine at its brightest.

Eventually, the space object will be visible in the Northern Hemisphere between the Big and Little Dippers, but by this time the high speed traveler will be much dimmer.

A Near Miss Is On Its Way

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Photograph of the Vesta asteroid from the Dawn spacecraft on July 24, 2011, photo from NASA

The Big Event

On Friday February 15, 2013 an asteroid, half the size of a football field is due to pass about 17, 000 miles from the surface of earth. In astronomical terms that is a “near miss”, but including to all sources, including NASA, no unusual side effects are expected from the extra-terrestrial object, which has been officially named asteroid  2012 DA14.

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First NASA video released on January 28, 2013 showing an animation sequence of the close pass-by of asteroid DA14, image and video from NASA

Something Strange Going On Here

The strange thing going on here is not the so much the close passage of the asteroid, but rather NASA’s PR effort in explaining the science behind what will happen on February 15. One of those unique events is a teleconference tomorrow on Feb. 7th explaining what can be learned from the approach of this asteroid. Also of note is a second animated video that was put together by the NASA Jet Propulsion laboratory, just yesterday.  Again NASA is using visual images to downplay the presence of DA14, but in reality, these graphic depictions may be actually having the opposite effect. Stay tuned this may get interesting.

Are We Doomed?

asteroid Stereo Itokawa
asteroid Stereo Itokawa, Credit: ISAS, JAXA; Stereo Image by Patrick Vantuyne

Asteroid Approaches Planet Earth

An asteroid is headed our way. It’s name is Asteroid 2005 YU55 and according to space scientists, the space rock will make a close pass to our planet on November 8 and 9, 2011. This extra-terrestrial mass of rock has drawn the attention of NASA’s Near Earth Object Program, due to the fact that this asteroid will come within one lunar distance (0.85 to be exact) of home. However, since the size of the this rock is only slightly larger than a football field (400 meters), the chances of it having a gravitational effect on earth is just about nil.

Asteroids In Literature

Every since their discovery in 1801, asteroids have fueled the imagination of the scientific and intellectual community including writers. Perhaps, the most notable example comes from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic novella, The Little Prince. In this children’s story, the “little prince” lives on an asteroid, called B612, but decides to visit planet earth mostly out of boredom. Since its publication in France during WWII (1943), the book has been printed in over 190 languages and sold approximately 180 million copies, not to mention the numerous stage, music and film spinoffs. The famed French aviator and author has even had a asteroid-moon named in his honor( Le Petit-Prince), as well as a foundation (the B612 Foundation), which honors  the fictional asteroid and is devoted to tracking asteroids that may pose a threat to our planet.

Visiting Asteroids

In June 2010, an unmanned Japanese space probe (Hayabusa) to the asteroid 25143 Itokawa, which is located near the planet Mars, returned to earth and made a successful landing in the vast outback of western Australia. Its contents included a sealed container, which remarkably made it back with a small sample of particles from the small extra-terrestrial body. No evidence of  royalty or any other human habitation was found, but researchers did obtain some valuable scientific. information by examining the tiny grains of asteroid dust. Presently, the Japanese are busy planning to send Hayabusa 2 to another nearby asteroid for more detailed sampling and a planned return to earth. By studying these unusual space bodies, space researchers hope to learn more about the origin of the solar system and even the universe along with some vital clues to how these space bodies can interact with other planets, especially earth.

A Story With Legs

Fishnet Stockings, photo by RJ Ferret, courtesy of Wikipedia
Fishnet Stockings, photo by RJ Ferret, courtesy of Wikipedia

Today an interesting story appeared on Huffington Post concerning the possible appearance of a supernova in the sky near the end of 2012. It is even possible that this celestial event might  coincide with the so-called “End of Days”, which is an integral part of the Mayan Calendar. This is the same “End of Days” that inspired the movie “2012” along with countless books and articles concerning the true significance of the approaching date..

According to the article, Betelgeuse (pronounced beetle juice), one of the brightest stars in the sky, is in a state of collapse and could go “supernova” at any time. Supernovas are caused when a star explodes. This is a natural part of the death cycle of stars and results in the formation of a neutron star or a black hole. The last supernova to be observed on the surface of the earth occurred in 1604.

One interesting side note to this story is its source. Much of the information in the article is attributed to Dr. Brad Carter, Senior Lecturer of Physics at the University of Southern Queensland. In a recent article that appeared in News Limited, an Australia news service, Dr. Carter details the effects that a supernova in a nearby star, such as betelgeuse might have on the earth. Currently, this red super-giant is the ninth brightest star in the sky. Along with its twin sister, Rigel It can be found in  the constellation of Orion. Betelgeuse can be seen in the right shoulder of Orion, while Rigel is part of the hunter’s left foot.

The Spotty Surface of Betelgeuse  Credit: Xavier Haubois (Observatoire de Paris) et al.
The Spotty Surface of Betelgeuse Credit: Xavier Haubois (Observatoire de Paris) et al.

Dr. Brad Carter is a Senior Lecturer of Physics at the University of Southern Queensland, Australia and he has acquired a minor presence in the media, almost always in conjunction with betelgeuse and the possibility that it might become the next supernova. Reference to the Australian astronomer has appeared in print dating at least as far back as  2004. So as far as the disintegration of betelgeuse goes, the fact that this event will occur is a generally known fact. The only question that remains is when it will happen and how bright will the explosion be as seen from the surface of earth.

And by the way for those, who are wondering where the term Betelgeuse came from, the word is believed to be of Arabic orign. According to the University of Illinois Department of Astronomy, the word is a “corruption of the Arabic ‘yad al jauza,’ which means the ‘hand of al-jauza,’ al-jauza the ancient Arabs’ ‘Central One,’ a mysterious woman”.

Winter Lights

Christmas lights, Portland, Maine
downtown Christmas lights in Portland, Maine

The solstice has now passed and the days are getting longer, but the thermometer is dropping, as the New Year quickly approaches.

What better time to walk around in the freezing cold and photograph some of the seasonal creations that are on display in this northern city, where hours of actual daylight dips below ten hours.

Perhaps this explains why some of the older cultures resorted to building large bonfires to light up the winter night sky.

Nowadays, in the modern era we have the electricity to do the chore for us.

Here in Portland the popular thing to do is to decorate the tress or buildings with balls of lights. It really does look quite splendid in the long winter sky, but I have noticed that the lighting displays have become increasing thinner as the nation struggles throught he darkness of lean economic times.

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tree with lights in Deering Park in Portland Maine

Here is another picture taken from the city park with a hint of afterglow in the night sky. This concept of hanging lights on trees is quite unique to my eyes and quite wonderful as well.

And finally one more picture of some lights on a tree along with the moon in the night sky which is close to full.

Such is the wonder of the new digital technology, which allows me to go out and take the night picture with a hand held Kodak digital camera, come home and slide the SD card into the slot on my computer and post this picture just hours after it was taken. Best wishes and a Happy New Year, Everett Autumn

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Christmas lights covering a tree accented by the moon