Sadly, there will be no Open Nights conducted at Stephens Memorial Observatory until further notice. As we write this, the only recommended means of preventing spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is to maintain at least six feet of distance between each other. Inviting the public to share the crowded space beneath the observatory’s ~16-foot dome would not be wise in view of the risk. We do not expect to conduct any Open Night sessions this year. Until we meet again, please watch this website for other news and follow us on Twitter. Thank you for your interest!
On December 21, 2020 Jupiter and Saturn will appear closer in our sky than they have since the year 1623 — only .10º apart. By way of comparison, Earth’s Moon covers about .50º on average! In fact, the two planets will have so little visual separation that they may appear as one bright “star” in our evening sky. As with many objects we see in our night sky, planets Jupiter and Saturn will only appear to be near to each other; they will will be physically separated by about 456 million miles.
Here’s why the planets will appear so close in our sky:
Viewed from Earth and looking out toward Jupiter and Saturn we see the planets as if they were in the same orbit — like watching runners in their separate lanes as one overtakes the other. Viewed from “above” we can see that the planets remain well apart.
As we drop lower and closer to the orbital plane it becomes more difficult to separate Jupiter and Saturn until, on December 21, 2020, we won’t be able to see them as discrete objects without the use of a telescope!
While the previous extremely close conjunction took place in 1623, Jupiter and Saturn were too close to the Sun to be observed. The last time they could actually be seen so close together was even longer ago: on March 4, 1226. Great Conjunctions take place just short of 20 years apart and most are not so close as this year’s — the next will take place on October 31, 2040, when Jupiter and Saturn will be separated by 1.1º which will be close, but not so amazing as 2020.
If you plan to take a look, you’ll need clear skies (of course!) and you’ll need to be timely — the planetary pair will become visible low in the southwestern sky with the fading twilight and will set in the west by 7:20 PM, December 21. To see the individual planets during their close encounter will require a telescope — a small one will do — or a decent telephoto lens on a camera mounted on a tripod. Given good optics and clear skies, viewers will be able to make out the Galilean Moons of Jupiter and, perhaps spy Titan, Saturn’s brightest moon.
Before and after the 21st, Jupiter and Saturn will appear close together as they first approach, and then recede from the conjunction, continuing to move along their orbital paths. The historic astronomical event will be one night and one night only in our lifetimes. Clear skies, please!
There will be a lunar eclipse the morning of November 30, 2020 but you may not want to get out of a warm bed to view it — it will be fairly “weak.” This month’s eclipse, viewable in its entirely from Northern Ohio (given clear skies) is of the penumbral variety and will not display the eerie colors that make total lunar eclipses so exciting.
A penumbral lunar eclipse occurs when the Full Moon passes through the shady outer circle — the penumbra — of Earth’s shadow streaming out into space. Careful observers will note how most of Moon dims slightly with a sliver of a brighter southern edge and a darker northern area. During a total lunar eclipse, the Full Moon passes fully through the darkest portion of Earth’s shadow, the umbra, and is illuminated by the colors of the globe’s sunrises and sunsets. Again, that won’t happen this time.
Most of Monday’s event is quite subtle and takes a long time, many won’t even notice the difference. If you want to see this eclipse at its best, even photogenic, view it only around maximum. The penumbral eclipse begins [P1] at 2:32 AM, reaches its Greatest eclipse (you may note northern darkening) at 4:52 AM, and the event ends [P4] at 6:53 AM when Moon completes its emergence from Earth’s shade.
The next total lunar eclipse — the type that features coppery-red colors at its peak — will take place May 26, 2021; unfortunately, that event will reach its maximum as Moon sets locally. The next total lunar eclipse that we might see in its entirety will take place May 16, 2022 and that should be a doozie!
Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez have jointly been awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on the supermassive black hole, Sagittarius A*, at the center of our galaxy. Genzel, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany, and his team have conducted observations of Sagittarius A* for nearly 30 years using a fleet of instruments on European Southern Observatory (ESO) telescopes.
Genzel shares half of the prize with Ghez, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles in the US, “for the discovery of a supermassive compact object at the center of our galaxy”, with the other half awarded to Roger Penrose, professor at the University of Oxford in the UK, “for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity.”
“Congratulations to all three Nobel laureates! We are delighted that the research on the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy has been recognized with the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics. We are proud that the telescopes ESO builds and operates at its observatories in Chile played a key role in this discovery,” says ESO’s Director General Xavier Barcons. “The work done by Reinhard Genzel with ESO telescopes and by Andrea Ghez with the Keck telescopes in Hawaii has enabled unprecedented insight into Sagittarius A*, which confirmed predictions of Einstein’s general relativity.”
ESO has worked in very close collaboration with Genzel and his group for around 30 years. Since the early 1990s, Genzel and his team, in cooperation with ESO, have developed instruments designed to track the orbits of stars in the Sagittarius A* region at the center of the Milky Way.
They started their campaign in 1992 using the SHARP instrument on ESO’s New Technology Telescope (NTT) at the La Silla Observatory in Chile. The team later used extremely sensitive instruments on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) and the Very Large Telescope Interferometer at the Paranal Observatory, namely NACO, SINFONI and later GRAVITY, to continue their study of Sagittarius A.
In 2008, after 16 years of tracking stars orbiting Sagittarius A*, the team delivered the best empirical evidence that a supermassive black hole exists at the center of our galaxy. Both Genzel’s and Ghez’s groups accurately traced the orbit of one star in particular, S2, which reached the closest distance to Sagittarius A* in May 2018. ESO undertook a number of developments and infrastructure upgrades in Paranal to enable accurate measurements of the position and velocity of S2.
The team led by Genzel found the light emitted by the star close to the supermassive black hole was stretched to longer wavelengths, an effect known as gravitational redshift, confirming for the first time Einstein’s general relativity near a supermassive black hole. Earlier this year, the team announced they had seen S2 ‘dance’ around the supermassive black hole, showing its orbit is shaped like a rosette, an effect called Schwarzschild precession that was predicted by Einstein.
Genzel and his team are also involved in the development of instruments that will be installed on ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope, currently under construction in Chile’s Atacama Desert, which will enable them to probe the environment even closer to the supermassive black hole.
The night of October 2 – 3 will see a brilliant pairing of lights, a conjunction, in our night sky. Earth’s Moon and planet Mars will shine close together — only a smidgen over a degree apart — in the southeast. As viewed from the Hiram, Ohio area, Moon and Mars will be nearest each other at 12:18 AM EDT. Don’t worry if you can’t stay up, the two will be a beautiful pair to behold all night long.
Our Moon will be a day past Full and in its Waning Gibbous phase, so it will be round and bright. Mars, while too distant to be seen as a disc by the unaided eye, is nearing an unusually close approach to Earth during its opposition and will shine like a coppery star. Mars will be nearest to Earth, at 62 million kilometers (38,525,014 miles) distant, on October 6 and it won’t be that close again until 2035.
Opposition refers to a time in their orbits when Mars (or another planet) is opposite the Earth from the Sun — around that time is when the two bodies, on concentric racetrack orbits around the Sun, pass each other and are at their closest and brightest.
At 6:24 AM EDT, September 30, a surprising light appeared in the predawn sky over Hiram — an extremely bright fireball meteor flared overhead! A fireball meteor is a meteor that appears brighter than the planet Venus. Reports of the flare were made by startled observers over eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania.
Hiram College is home to a NASA All-Sky Fireball Network camera system that watches for bright meteors every clear night. Recorded events are uploaded to NASA for analysis which aids in assessing threats to spacecraft by high-velocity solar system debris.
Cleveland, Ohio’s WKYC television published a report on the event along with several other video clips. Click Here to see their story.
Hiram College has been home to the NASA all-sky camera since 2013. The camera sits atop one of the buildings on the college campus and is maintained in cooperation with NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office.
An international team of astronomers today announced the discovery of a rare molecule — phosphine — in the clouds of Venus. On Earth, this gas is only made industrially or by microbes that thrive in oxygen-free environments. Astronomers have speculated for decades that high clouds on Venus could offer a home for microbes — floating free of the scorching surface but needing to tolerate very high acidity. The detection of phosphine could point to such extra-terrestrial “aerial” life. Confirming the presence of life, however, will require much more work.
“When we got the first hints of phosphine in Venus’s spectrum, it was a shock!”, says team leader Jane Greaves of Cardiff University in the UK, who first spotted signs of phosphine in observations from the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT), operated by the East Asian Observatory, in Hawaiʻi. Confirming their discovery required using 45 antennas of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, a more sensitive telescope in which the European Southern Observatory (ESO) is a partner. Both facilities observed Venus at a wavelength of about 1 millimeter, much longer than the human eye can see — only telescopes at high altitude can detect it effectively.
The international team, which includes researchers from the UK, US and Japan, estimates that phosphine exists in Venus’s clouds at a small concentration, only about twenty molecules in every billion. Following their observations, they ran calculations to see whether these amounts could come from natural non-biological processes on the planet. Some ideas included sunlight, minerals blown upwards from the surface, volcanoes, or lightning, but none of these could make anywhere near enough of it. These non-biological sources were found to make at most one ten thousandth of the amount of phosphine that the telescopes saw.
To create the observed quantity of phosphine (which consists of hydrogen and phosphorus) on Venus, terrestrial organisms would only need to work at about 10% of their maximum productivity, according to the team. Earth bacteria are known to make phosphine: they take up phosphate from minerals or biological material, add hydrogen, and ultimately expel phosphine. Any organisms on Venus will probably be very different to their Earth cousins, but they too could be the source of phosphine in the atmosphere.
While the discovery of phosphine in Venus’s clouds came as a surprise, the researchers are confident in their detection. “To our great relief, the conditions were good at ALMA for follow-up observations while Venus was at a suitable angle to Earth. Processing the data was tricky, though, as ALMA isn’t usually looking for very subtle effects in very bright objects like Venus,” says team member Anita Richards of the UK ALMA Regional Centre and the University of Manchester. “In the end, we found that both observatories had seen the same thing — faint absorption at the right wavelength to be phosphine gas, where the molecules are backlit by the warmer clouds below,” adds Greaves, who led the study published today in Nature Astronomy.
Another team member, Clara Sousa Silva of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US, has investigated phosphine as a “biosignature” gas of non-oxygen-using life on planets around other stars, because normal chemistry makes so little of it. She comments: “Finding phosphine on Venus was an unexpected bonus! The discovery raises many questions, such as how any organisms could survive. On Earth, some microbes can cope with up to about 5% of acid in their environment — but the clouds of Venus are almost entirely made of acid.”
The team believes their discovery is significant because they can rule out many alternative ways to make phosphine, but they acknowledge that confirming the presence of “life” needs a lot more work. Although the high clouds of Venus have temperatures up to a pleasant 30 degrees Celsius, they are incredibly acidic — around 90% sulfuric acid — posing major issues for any microbes trying to survive there.
ESO astronomer and ALMA European Operations Manager Leonardo Testi, who did not participate in the new study, says: “The non-biological production of phosphine on Venus is excluded by our current understanding of phosphine chemistry in rocky planets’ atmospheres. Confirming the existence of life on Venus’s atmosphere would be a major breakthrough for astrobiology; thus, it is essential to follow-up on this exciting result with theoretical and observational studies to exclude the possibility that phosphine on rocky planets may also have a chemical origin different than on Earth.”
More observations of Venus and of rocky planets outside our Solar System, including with ESO’s forthcoming Extremely Large Telescope, may help gather clues on how phosphine can originate on them and contribute to the search for signs of life beyond Earth.
by James Guilford
Hey! That’s my fireball!!
I had stepped outdoors to check the sky (hoping to see at least one Perseid Meteor) and witnessed a fireball at 11:36 PM; it was captured by the NASA All-Sky Fireball Network camera system hosted by Hiram College. That was the first time I had spotted a meteor that was also captured by the automated camera. The “shooting star” is not very impressive in the picture but it was a beauty by eye, glowing brightly and leaving a long “smoke trail” as it traveled from south to north.
Below is a summary of the data the NASA system was able to derive from Hiram, Oberlin College, and Allegheny Observatory imagery. Rather than a Perseids meteor, it was classified as an Alpha Capricornids meteor — that shower peaked in late July.
If you are interested in NASA’s All-Sky Fireball Network, here’s a link to their website. Meteor data are updated daily with image captures and event summaries. Hiram’s is one of 17 all-sky cameras located in the continental U.S. https://fireballs.ndc.nasa.gov.
On August 13, 2013, Hiram College became the host for one of NASA’s All-Sky Camera Fireball Network stations, Oberlin College and Allegheny Observatory joining with us. The automated camera system watches the sky every night for exceptionally-bright meteors called fireballs.
James Guilford operates Stephens Memorial Observatory for the Physics Department of Hiram College.
It’s Perseids season!
The annual Perseid Meteor Shower peaks from August 11 to 13, the event many consider to be the best meteor shower of the year, thanks to frequent meteors streaking across the sky and comfortable nighttime temperatures. This year, skywatchers can expect to see between 50 and 75 meteors an hour under dark skies, or about one meteor every minute. The meteors are bits of material strewn across Earth’s path in space by Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle. The bits of dust and grit glow brightly as they burn up while entering Earth’s atmosphere at about 37 miles per second.
This year, for those who venture out before midnight on the peak date(s), Earth’s Moon won’t interfere. Dedicated meteor spotters — those who observe in the wee hours between midnight and dawn — may curse as Moon rises and brightens the sky, making faint meteors harder to see. There is another problem, however, much closer to home: the weather.
The weather forecast calls for mostly cloudy skies Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Of course.
Do not abandon hope.
The nights preceding and following the shower’s peak see occasional meteors from the Perseid and Alpha Capricornid showers and include fireballs (very bright meteors) from both. When the sky’s clear, go out and enjoy the mild nights that may include “shooting stars.” After twilight fades, find a dark spot, spread out a blanket, or untangle that deck lounge chair, apply a little mosquito repellent and look up. As your eyes grow used to the dark you’ll see more and more stars, planets Jupiter and Saturn gracing the southern sky, and with decently dark sky, spy the soft clouds of our own Milky Way galaxy. You’ll probably see a satellite or two, too.
Resembling a butterfly with its symmetrical structure, beautiful colors, and intricate patterns, this striking bubble of gas — known as NGC 2899 — appears to float and flutter across the sky in this new picture from the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT). This object has never before been imaged in such striking detail, with even the faint outer edges of the planetary nebula glowing over the background stars.
NGC 2899’s vast swathes of gas extend up to a maximum of two light-years from its center, glowing brightly in front of the stars of the Milky Way as the gas reaches temperatures upwards of ten thousand degrees. The high temperatures are due to the large amount of radiation from the nebula’s parent star, which causes the hydrogen gas in the nebula to glow in a reddish halo around the oxygen gas, in blue.
This object, located between 3000 and 6500 light-years away in the Southern constellation of Vela (The Sails), has two central stars, which are believed to give it its nearly symmetric appearance. After one star reached the end of its life and cast off its outer layers, the other star now interferes with the flow of gas, forming the two-lobed shape seen here. Only about 10–20% of planetary nebulae  display this type of bipolar shape.
Astronomers were able to capture this highly detailed image of NGC 2899 using the FORS instrument installed on UT1 (Antu), one of the four 8.2-meter telescopes that make up ESO’s VLT in Chile. Standing for FOcal Reducer and low dispersion Spectrograph, this high-resolution instrument was one of the first to be installed on ESO’s VLT and is behind numerous beautiful images and discoveries from ESO. FORS has contributed to observations of light from a gravitational wave source, has researched the first known interstellar asteroid, and has been used to study in depth the physics behind the formation of complex planetary nebulae.
This image was created under the ESO Cosmic Gems program, an outreach initiative to produce images of interesting, intriguing or visually attractive objects using ESO telescopes, for the purposes of education and public outreach. The program makes use of telescope time that cannot be used for science observations. All data collected may also be suitable for scientific purposes, and are made available to astronomers through ESO’s science archive.
Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) was, for us in North America, a predawn object requiring exceptional dedication for observing. In the second week of July, the comet had moved enough in its orbit to become visible in the evening sky — from late twilight to about 11 p.m. Unfortunately, cloudy nights have been the rule lately so opportunities have been few.
On Wednesday night, July 15, the sky forecast was a bit shaky but it turned out the sky cleared enough to allow C/2020 F3 to be seen. I raced off to an observing site some 25 minutes away from home, popular with sunset watchers and, occasionally, comet spotters. Arriving at the site I found the place mobbed, the parking lot nearly full, by scores of would-be comet viewers. Unfortunately, the comet was pretty much at the low end of naked-eye visibility. Light pollution reduced contrast between comet and background sky to make the object nearly invisible — binoculars were needed. It’s likely most of those in attendance never saw the comet.
Entitled “Purity and Pollution,” this picture (a single exposure of 8 seconds) shows a pristine wonder of the night sky floating serenely amongst the stars, clouds glowing brightly below illuminated by artificial light pollution. If we were only more careful with our artificial light, we’d save plentiful energy (and money) and gain back our starry skies as a bonus!
C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) will be gracing our night skies for the next week or so and I hope to have more than one opportunity to record the event before it is gone. The next apparition of this comet is expected in about 6,800 years.