What’s in the night sky?
By Bryan shumaker
NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador
Greetings to all my fellow star gazers! We had a single night that was clear for part of the evening, so I did get a chance to be outside and do some observing.
Like a cool drink of water on a hot day, this brief respite in the constantly overcast skies did much to restore me.
The moon is full on February 14, Valentine’s Day.
Notable this week is the discovery of the Uranian moon Miranda on February 23, 1948 by Dutch astronomer Gerard Kuiper.
If the name sounds familiar, it’s because a vast ring of leftover solar system material is named after him.
The Kuiper belt is a region of the Solar System beyond the planets, extending from the orbit of Neptune (at 30 AU, or Astronomical Units—one AU equals 93 million miles) to approximately 50 AU from the Sun. It is similar to the asteroid belt, but it is far larger—20 times as wide and 20 to 200 times as massive.
Like the asteroid belt, it consists mainly of remnants from the Solar System’s formation.
Although some asteroids are composed primarily of rock and metal, most Kuiper belt objects are composed largely of frozen ices, such as methane, ammonia and water.
The classical belt is home to at least three dwarf planets: Pluto, Haumea, and Makemake.
Since the belt was discovered in 1992, the number of known Kuiper belt objects (KBOs) is more than 100,000 over 60 miles in diameter.
Out beyond Uranus’ orbit, it is comprised of untold amounts of debris, some very large—like Pluto.
As I mentioned last week, Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh on February 18, 1930.
The galaxy M82, which is visible in a small telescope and resides in the constellation of Ursa Major, experienced a supernova explosion first visible to us last week.
These explosions are the most violent and powerful ones in the universe.
For a brief time, their energy output is so enormous that they will outshine the entire galaxy! S
ince this galaxy is “only” about 12 million light years away, it gives astronomers the ability to study this event in great detail.
Meanwhile, the Chinese are having trouble with their moon lander, which has now been on the moon just over a month.
The small rover, called “Jade Rabbit” after a Chinese mythological creature, is having trouble.
The details are not clear, but apparently the rover may not survive much longer.
The Chinese are only the third country to soft land anything on the Moon (the US and Russia are the other two).
The early pictures sent back are quite spectacular, and you should check them out on the Web.
China has an ambitious space program, and it shows again what drive, determination, and large amounts of money can do!
Although very productive, NASA has been hit with many budget cuts which severely affects our ability to stay in the forefront of space science and exploration.
Additionally, it weakens the ability to plan good projects on a long term basis.
It’s very difficult to spend many years as a project scientist and suddenly be told that after all the work, energy and time spent, the project you have poured your life into has been cancelled due to budget cuts!
As usual, I encourage you to get outside and do some night sky gazing if the weather permits.
The winter constellations are in full glory, with mighty Orion high in the east after darkness falls.
Try and identify some of the brighter stars in the winter sky—Betelgeuse, Rigel, Capella, and Sirius (brightest star in the winter sky).
Let’s all hope for at least some clear, moonless skies and remember, keep looking up!