A Christmas Eve launch set for the James Webb Space Telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope, the premier space science observatory of the next decade, is targeted for launch Dec. 24 from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana, on the northeastern coast of South America. Credits: NASA/Chris Gunn

NASA will provide coverage of prelaunch, launch, and postlaunch activities for the James Webb Space Telescope, the world’s largest and most powerful space science telescope.

Webb is targeted to launch at 7:20 a.m. EST Friday, Dec. 24, on an Arianespace Ariane 5 rocket from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, on the northeastern coast of South America.

Live launch coverage in English will begin at 6 a.m. on NASA TV, the NASA app, and the agency’s website. The public can also watch live on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Twitch, and Daily Motion. NASA also will offer a launch broadcast in Spanish beginning at 6:30 a.m. on the agency’s website and Spanish-language social media accounts.

The Webb mission, an international partnership with ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency, will explore every phase of cosmic history – from within the solar system to the most distant observable galaxies in the early universe, and everything in between. Webb will reveal new and unexpected discoveries and help humanity understand the origins of the universe and our place in it.

ESO telescopes reveal closest pair of supermassive black holes yet seen

Close-up view of the two bright galactic nuclei, each housing a supermassive black hole, in NGC 7727, a galaxy located 89 million light-years away from Earth in the constellation Aquarius. Each nucleus consists of a dense group of stars with a supermassive black hole at its center. The image was taken with the MUSE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal Observatory in Chile. Credit: ESO/Voggel et al.

Located in the galaxy NGC 7727 in the constellation Aquarius, the supermassive black hole pair is about 89 million light-years away from Earth. Although this may seem distant, it beats the previous record of 470 million light-years by quite some margin, making the newfound supermassive black hole pair the nearest us yet.  

Supermassive black holes lurk at the center of massive galaxies and when two such galaxies merge, the black holes end up on a collision course. The pair in NGC 7727 beat the record for the smallest separation between two supermassive black holes, as they are observed to be just 1,600 light-years apart. “It is the first time we find two supermassive black holes that are this close to each other, less than half the separation of the previous record holder,” said Karina Voggel, an astronomer at the Strasbourg Observatory in France and lead author of the study published online in Astronomy & Astrophysics.

“The small separation and velocity of the two black holes indicate that they will merge into one monster black hole, probably within the next 250 million years,” added co-author Holger Baumgardt, a professor at the University of Queensland, Australia. The merging of black holes like these could explain how the most massive black holes in the Universe come to be.

Voggel and her team were able to determine the masses of the two objects by looking at how the gravitational pull of the black holes influences the motion of the stars around them. The bigger black hole, located right at the core of NGC 7727, was found to have a mass almost 154 million times that of our Sun, while its companion is 6.3 million solar masses.

It is the first time the masses have been measured in this way for a supermassive black hole pair. This feat was made possible thanks to the close proximity of the system to Earth and the detailed observations the team obtained at the Paranal Observatory in Chile using the Multi-Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) on ESO’s Very Large Telescope, an instrument Voggel learnt to work with during her time as a student at ESO. Measuring the masses with MUSE, and using additional data from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, allowed the team to confirm that the objects in NGC 7727 were indeed supermassive black holes.

Astronomers suspected that the galaxy hosted the two black holes, but they had not been able to confirm their presence until now since we do not see large amounts of high-energy radiation coming from their immediate surroundings, which would otherwise give them away. Our finding implies that there might be many more of these relics of galaxy mergers out there and they may contain many hidden massive black holes that still wait to be found,” said Voggel. “It could increase the total number of supermassive black holes known in the local Universe by 30 percent.”

The NGC 7727 galaxy, shown in this image from ESO’s VLT Survey Telescope (VST) in Chile. Located 89 million light-years away from Earth in the constellation Aquarius, NGC 7727 is believed to be the result of a clash between two galaxies that occurred about one billion years ago. The consequences of this tremendous cosmic bump are still evident in the peculiar, irregular shape of NGC 7727 and the streams of stars in its outer regions.  Credit: ESO/VST ATLAS team. Acknowledgement: Durham University/CASU/WFAU

November 19th “near-total” lunar eclipse

2007 Total Lunar Eclipse. Photo by James Guilford.
2007 Total Lunar Eclipse. The November 19, 2021 eclipse will look much like this at its maximum. Photo by James Guilford

Taking place in the early hours of Friday, November 19 is what we will call a near-total lunar eclipse. When the eclipse reaches its maximum extent, about 97 percent of Moon will be within Earth’s deep umbra shadow. Much of the lunar disk would appear darkly colored but coloration would lighten across Moon’s face until, along one edge,

We say “would appear” because in Hiram, at least, skies are expected to be cloudy and delivering snow rather than views of our Moon’s show! Still, there’s a chance there will be a break in the weather and it’s good to know about these things.

A total lunar eclipse takes place when Moon completely enters the deep umbra of Earth’s cone-shaped shadow in space. The lunar surface is lit only by light that has passed through Earth’s atmosphere, coloring it shades of copper and red. Illustration Credit: NASA / James Guilford

A total lunar eclipse takes place when Earth’s Moon entirely enters the umbra portion of the planet’s shadow. There, lit only by light scattered through Earth’s atmosphere, Moon glows in beautiful colors ranging from deep red to bright copper. Naturally, to ancient peoples, the sight of the Full Moon changing from bright white to blood red caused fear and panic. Today, lunar eclipses are favorite targets for photography, and observations by astronomers. The November 19 event won’t technically be a total lunar eclipse but still well worth seeing!

This image illustrates the passage of Moon through Earth’s shadow the morning of November 19, 2021. When Moon is outside of the shadow, it will be in its Full phase. Entering the thin outer shadow or penumbra, the lunar disk will begin dimming. As it reaches the umbra, pronounced darkening begins and Moon will no longer appear as full. Strongest coloration appears as Moon, or portions of it, move close to the center of the umbra. Image via Fred Espenak.

Timing of the the November 19 eclipse is shown below and is accurate for areas surrounding Akron, Ohio. Those reading this article can get a localized timing table by visiting TimeAndDate.com

Timing of the the November 19 eclipse is shown below and is accurate for areas surrounding Akron, Ohio. Credit: TimeAndDate.com

We began this piece mentioning the unfortunate weather. It appears conditions will be worse to the northeast of Hiram and potentially better to the west and we can thank Lake Effect precipitation for that. So get up and check the skies around 4:00 a.m., if you want to take a chance, or just stay snug in bed. Either way know that a beautiful natural phenomenon is underway high above, happening just as it should, just when it should.

Our next opportunity to see a lunar eclipse? May 15 – 16, 2022, and it will be a total lunar eclipse. Totality will occur around midnight. Let’s hope for better weather chances then!

Happy Birthday, Cooley!

Photo: Vintage Observatory Telescope. Photo by James Guilford.
The Cooley Telescope at Stephens Memorial Observatory

On October 25, 120 years ago, Rev. Lathrop Cooley, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, presented a 9-inch Warner & Swasey telescope to Hiram College. He remarked, “This instrument is erected here so that you may climb the steep of heaven and walk among the stars.” The Cooley Telescope has resided in Hiram since its dedication, first at Teachout Library and Observatory then, following a building fire, at Stephens Memorial Observatory.

Dedicated at Hiram College in 1901, it is a fine and unique example of turn of the (20th) century astronomical telescope technology being complete as manufactured, including its functional weight-driven drive. As is customary, the telescope was named for the benefactor who provided it, Lathrop Cooley. See our History page for more about Mr. Cooley.

The telescope and its mount were made by the Warner and Swasey Company in Cleveland at their telescope factory located at Carnegie Avenue and East 55th Street. The outstanding optics were produced by the John Brashear Company, Pittsburgh. Over the years the Cooley Telescope has provided splendid views of Earth’s Moon, planets, nebulae, star clusters, comets, and even Sun, to many hundreds, perhaps thousands of visitors. Though the telescope remains operable, it is in need of mechanical overhaul and refurbishment.

We’re still observing restrictions meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19 but we hope it will not be very much longer before we can again share the wonders of the universe with visitors. After all, the Cooley Telescope is a gift that keeps on giving possibly for another century or so!

Dedication Plaque affixed to the Cooley Telescope
Dedication Plaque affixed to the Cooley Telescope

Our active Sun

The Sun, showing several sunspots/active regions. This image was made at 3:43 PM EDT/7:43 PM UTC on September 10, 2021 using the photographer’s personal reflecting telescope with safe solar filter, and DSLR camera body. Credit: James Guilford

After a long period of quiet during our Sun’s fairly predictable 11-year activity cycle, things have been happening. What was a bright, clear disk has become speckled with sunspots of late. The increased activity brings with it the chance of Earth-directed coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, which result in solar storms when they collide with our home planet’s magnetic field. Auroras, or “northern lights” for us, are one potential result of solar storms. The less pleasant effects can include disruption of radio communications and satellite operation, all the way to electrical grid failures at the extreme!

Several recent CMEs have missed Earth but one is headed in our direction as this blog entry is being written. According to SpaceWeather.com, “{A} CME is on the way following an explosion in the magnetic canopy of sunspot AR2864 on Sept. 8th. NOAA analysts believe Earth could experience a glancing blow or near miss late on Sept. 11th.” Those favored with clear skies and a good view to the north may want to be on the lookout for aurora, but the odds aren’t favorable … this time!

Here are two photos of Sun, shot by Stephens’ Director James Guilford, at 3:43 PM EDT (7:43 PM UTC). The first image shows the full solar disk. Notice not only the dark sunspots but also the lighter-colored “splotches” of additional active solar regions, most visible near the edges of the disk.

The second image is cropped to show the major concentration of the day’s sunspots with their official numerical designations. Both images have been color tinted.

A tightly-cropped portion of the day’s full-disk image shows three sunspot groups: AR 2866, AR 2868, and AR 2869. Sunspots only appear to be dark because they are significantly “cooler” than the surrounding solar atmosphere; they are actually quite hot. Sun’s shining photosphere has a temperature of 5,800 degrees Kelvin while sunspots have temperatures of around 3,800ºK (6,380℉). Nearly all of the dark features seen here are larger than planet Earth. Credit: James Guilford

Centaurus A captured by the Dark Energy Camera

The galaxy Centaurus A, which lies over 12 million light-years away in the direction of the southern-hemisphere constellation Centaurus (The Centaur), is the leading light of this striking image. This image provides a spectacular view of the luminous glow of stars and dark tendrils of dust that hide the bright center of the galaxy. This dust is the result of a past galactic collision, in which a giant elliptical galaxy merged with a smaller spiral galaxy. As well as large amounts of gas and dust, Centaurus A’s dust lane contains widespread star formation, as indicated by the red clouds of hydrogen and by the large numbers of faint blue stars visible at each end of the dust lane.

Credit: CTIO/NOIRLab/DOE/NSF/AURA

Astronomers make first clear detection of a moon-forming disc around an exoplanet

This image, taken with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), in which ESO is a partner, shows wide (left) and close-up (right) views of the moon-forming disc surrounding PDS 70c, a young Jupiter-like planet nearly 400 light-years away. The close-up view shows PDS 70c and its circumplanetary disc center-front, with the larger circumstellar ring-like disc taking up most of the right-hand side of the image. The star PDS 70 is at the center of the wide-view image on the left. Two planets have been found in the system, PDS 70c and PDS 70b, the latter not being visible in this image. They have carved a cavity in the circumstellar disc as they gobbled up material from the disc itself, growing in size. In this process, PDS 70c acquired its own circumplanetary disc, which contributes to the growth of the planet and where moons can form. This circumplanetary disc is as large as the Sun-Earth distance and has enough mass to form up to three satellites the size of the Moon. Credit:ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/Benisty et al.

The Great Dimming of Betelgeuse explained in new research

These images, taken with the SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope, show the surface of the red supergiant star Betelgeuse during its unprecedented dimming, which happened in late 2019 and early 2020. The image on the far left, taken in January 2019, shows the star at its normal brightness, while the remaining images, from December 2019, January 2020 and March 2020, were all taken when the star’s brightness had noticeably dropped, especially in its southern region. The brightness returned to normal in April 2020.

June 16, 2021 — When Betelgeuse, a bright orange star in the constellation of Orion, became visibly darker in late 2019 and early 2020, the astronomy community was puzzled. A team of astronomers have now published new images of the star’s surface, taken using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (ESO’s VLT), that clearly show how its brightness changed. The new research reveals that the star was partially concealed by a cloud of dust, a discovery that solves the mystery of the “Great Dimming” of Betelgeuse.

Betelgeuse’s dip in brightness — a change noticeable even to the naked eye — led Miguel Montargès and his team to point ESO’s VLT towards the star in late 2019. An image from December 2019, when compared to an earlier image taken in January of the same year, showed that the stellar surface was significantly darker, especially in the southern region. But the astronomers weren’t sure why.

The team continued observing the star during its Great Dimming, capturing two other never-before-seen images in January 2020 and March 2020. By April 2020, the star had returned to its normal brightness.

“For once, we were seeing the appearance of a star changing in real time on a scale of weeks,” says Montargès, from the Observatoire de Paris, France, and KU Leuven, Belgium. The images now published are the only ones we have that show Betelgeuse’s surface changing in brightness over time.

In their new study, published today in Nature, the team revealed that the mysterious dimming was caused by a dusty veil shading the star, which in turn was the result of a drop in temperature on Betelgeuse’s stellar surface.

Betelgeuse’s surface regularly changes as giant bubbles of gas move, shrink and swell within the star. The team concludes that some time before the Great Dimming, the star ejected a large gas bubble that moved away from it. When a patch of the surface cooled down shortly after, that temperature decrease was enough for the gas to condense into solid dust.

“We have directly witnessed the formation of so-called stardust,” says Montargès, whose study provides evidence that dust formation can occur very quickly and close to a star’s surface. “The dust expelled from cool evolved stars, such as the ejection we’ve just witnessed, could go on to become the building blocks of terrestrial planets and life,” adds Emily Cannon, from KU Leuven, who was also involved in the study.

June 10 dawns with a partially eclipsed Sun

Annular Eclipse of the Sun. Image Attribution: Smrgeog, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

An annular eclipse of the sun will take place June 10 and it will be underway at sunrise. Unfortunately, even with clear skies we will not see the “ring of fire” that is the namesake look of this type of eclipse. In fact, no place in the United States will see the complete circle, or annulus, of Sun around Moon. So don’t feel left out.

In our area, sunrise will be at 5:55 AM (EDT) with the eclipse already at its maximum for us. The eclipse ends at 6:35 AM as Moon completes its passage across Sun.

A total eclipse of the sun takes place when Earth’s Moon, at normal orbital distances, covers the solar disk completely and blocks all but the glowing corona from view. An annular eclipse takes place when Moon is at higher points in its orbit when it passes between Earth and Sun, too distant and small to form a perfect cover, allowing a brilliant ring of our star to shine.

What we may see at dawn and diminishing thereafter, is a partial solar eclipse — looking a bit like the chomping character from the classic PAC-MAN video game. Much of the solar disk will be visible but the curved edge of Moon will take a bite out of one side.

How can you watch the eclipse? With great care!

Partial Eclipse of the Sun, August 21, 2017 — this image rotated to resemble what viewers might see at dawn, June 10, 2021. Photo by James Guilford

How can you watch the eclipse? With great care! At no time during our partial solar eclipse will it be safe to watch the event without vision protection. If you have eclipse glasses from a recent solar eclipse, those should be just fine — just make sure there are no pinholes or other damage to the plastic film “lenses”! You can check for damage by holding the eclipse viewer at arm’s length and looking at a bright lightbulb. If you see any dots of light through the viewer film, throw those glasses out!

Do NOT look at the sun through sunglasses, even multiple sets of sunglasses, or photo negatives, Compact Discs, or anything other than certified eclipse viewing equipment! Pinhole and other projection techniques can be used safely since the viewer is looking at a projection and not the sun itself. Five Ways to View the Solar Eclipse

“The Sun can be viewed safely with the naked eye only during the few brief seconds or minutes of a total solar eclipse. Partial eclipses, annular eclipses, and the partial phases of total eclipses are never safe to watch without taking special precautions. Even when 99% of the Sun’s surface is obscured during the partial phases of a total eclipse, the remaining photospheric crescent is intensely bright and cannot be viewed safely without eye protection [Chou, 1981; Marsh, 1982]. Do not attempt to observe the partial or annular phases of any eclipse with the naked eye. Failure to use appropriate filtration may result in permanent eye damage or blindness!” — NASA: Eye Safety During Solar Eclipses

Total lunar eclipse? Uh, not this time.

This map shows where the May 26, 2021 lunar eclipse is visible. Contours mark the edge of the region where the eclipse will be visible at the times when the Moon enters or leaves the umbra (the part of the Earth’s shadow where the Sun is completely hidden) and penumbra (the part where the Sun is only partially blocked). Credit: NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio.

They say timing is everything and, with eclipses, that is certainly true. Unfortunately, timing will not be in our favor for viewing the Wednesday, May 26 total lunar eclipse. Earth’s Moon will be dipping very close to the horizon as morning twilight brightens hiding the most colorful portion of the event — totality — when Moon turns shades of copper and red. The subtle penumbral eclipse as Moon enters Earth’s outer shadow and will likely be even harder to see than usual. The partial phase of the eclipse begins as Moon enters the dark inner portion of the shadow cone and is easily spotted under other circumstances. Even the partial eclipse begins so late with Moon so close to the horizon that only a lucky few Ohioans will see any part of it.

Penumbral Eclipse beginsMay 26 at 4:47 a.m.
Partial Eclipse beginsMay 26 at 5:45 a.m.
Total Eclipse beginsMay 26 at 7:11 a.m.
Maximum EclipseMay 26 at 7:18 a.m.
Eclipse Timings — Eastern Daylight Time — Northeastern Ohio

The good news? Lunar eclipses can occur only at the time of a Full Moon and this event features a perigee Moon — our natural satellite at a particularly low portion of its orbit around Earth — appearing just a bit bigger and brighter than average. “Low”, in this case means 221,880 miles out. So, if skies allow, get out and enjoy the big, brilliant Full Moon tonight — it’s a natural wonder in its own right.

Visibility of the total phase in the contiguous U.S., at 11:11 UTC. Totality can be seen everywhere in the Pacific and Mountain time zones, along with Texas, Oklahoma, western Kansas, Hawaii and Alaska.

Still want to watch the eclipse, even though we can’t see it from here? Just do an online search for live eclipse viewing opportunities or tune in to your favorite morning TV news show; they’ll be broadcasting from the West Coast or Hawaii where the eclipse can be properly seen!

Don’t despair, dear moonwatcher! Come this November 19, in the wee hours of the morning, we will be in an excellent position to see a nearly total lunar eclipse from our own backyards! More on that at a later time!