Sunday, January 3, 2010

What's Up? International Year of Astronomy 2009

Welcome back to What's Up?

As we enter 2010 we leave behind 2009, a very exciting year for many astronomy clubs and groups around the world.

2009 was the International Year of Astronomy, a year celebrating the 400th anniversary of Galileo's first recorded observations of the Moon and the sky with a telescope. It was declared by the United Nations and then the International Astronomical Union organized events worldwide.

The Athena Community Astronomy Club, the local astronomy club in Summerside, organized a few events through the year to get astronomy out to the public.

Throughout the summer, the club had evening sky viewings every clear Wednesday on the bay-walk. Throughout the roughly ten viewings we wowed passersby with views of the Moon, Jupiter, Saturn, and a few of the brighter nebula and star clusters through telescopes. A lucky few near the start of the Summer were able to spot faint little Mercury before it disappeared below the horizon.

On our second viewing, and many following viewings, many people just passing by were excited to look through a telescope for the first time. They were not disappointed. They could easily see Saturn's beautiful rings.

On August 6, the sixth public viewing of the summer, we saw the bright full Moon (almost too bright!) and got to look at Jupiter through a telescope. Through a telescope, three of Jupiter's four biggest moons discovered by Galileo 400 years ago were visible. 

There was also a new feature on Jupiter's disk. It had been hit by a large asteroid or comet a couple of days earlier and a faint black smudge was on Jupiter's relatively smooth orange disk. This dark smudge was about as big as the entire Earth! Jupiter is so large that the smudge disappeared within a few weeks and no trace remained.

On August 12 was the Perseid meteor shower. There was a good sized group out that night and we saw quite a few meteors (shooting stars). 

August 26 was a night to remember. We were having trouble with the clouds for well over an hour and we had finally gotten a break. On the horizon, looking out over the water, was what looked like a vivid red sail of a ship. It was the famous burning ship of the Northumberland strait!

We thought about it for a second and realized it was just the crescent Moon! We pointed our telescopes at it and yes, it was definitely the Moon. The Moon was so red because of all of the air it had to pass through, the blue light was scattered by the air and only the red light made it to us.

It is quite possible that every sighting of the burning ship over many years was just the crescent Moon setting. Who knew astronomy could be used to solve ghost stories?

Our club had a couple of monthly meetings at Scales Pond, hoping to get a viewing in, but the skies didn't cooperate.

One of our members took his telescope to Cabot park and showed Jupiter to a group of about 80 kids.

There was a past club member from Australia visiting along with her husband, who is the discoverer of two supernovae (so far). A supernova is a giant the explosion of massive star at the end of its life. The supernovae he discovered were in a galaxy so distant that the light from those stellar explosions took tens of millions of years to reach us!

To finish off the year, we had a guest speaker from the CSA, Richard Levéillé, who talked about Canada's role in space exploration. He spoke to a morning group of over 500 grade nine and high school students as well as to the public in the evening at the Harbourfront theatre.

Hopefully we'll be able to get out and see what's up some more in 2010, but for now, let's check out what's up in the coming month.

The Quadrantids meteor shower peaks sometime around Jan. 3 and can be a great show for a few hours but are very irregular. Keep an eye out for a few meteors if you're looking up at the sky that night.

The new Moon will be on Jan. 15 this month and will become full again by Jan. 30.

Mars' closest approach for the year will be on Jan. 29. This will be the best time to look at Mars through a telescope. 

After sunset, Jupiter will be visible low in the South-West while Mars will be rising in the East. Jupiter will be the brightest star-like object in the sky and Mars will be a fairly bright red.

The Athena Community Astronomy Club's monthly meeting will be on January 31, the last Sunday of the month.

Until next month, just look up!

Hey Kids...
Earth isn't the only object with a liquid on its surface. Saturn's biggest moon, Titan, has lakes, rivers, and some seas of methane (a key ingredient in animal flatulence). It's so cold there that the water never melts and the methane rains down, collects in lakes and eventually evaporates. Just last month, astronomers got the first direct visible light image through Titan's thick atmosphere. They managed to catch the Sun's reflection off one of the lakes. Maybe these lakes contain some kind of strange life. Nobody knows!