Well, it looks like we’ll not be opening our Public Nights season this month after all.

Outside of the usual concerns over wet and cloudy weather, and issues with our old building, now we have public health matters to take into consideration.

While the observatory is pretty much open to outside air when in use, people are quite close together under the dome — closer than public health experts recommend.

We’d rather everyone enjoy the night sky in good health and not have Stephens become a place where illness is spread; so we will watch and wait for resolution of the pandemic COVID-19 disease. When gatherings again make sense, we’ll announce and commence our season of Public Nights.

Until then, we’ll point out opportunities for home stargazing when clear nights occur and most of those suggestions come via our Twitter feed. You don’t need to have a Twitter account to see what’s going on, simple visit:  https://twitter.com/StephensObs

Through this all, we’ll fall back on the wisdom of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy upon which is written in large, friendly letters, “Don’t Panic”. No need to hoard toilet paper or bottled water. Just be smart about what you do to protect your health and the well-being of others. There’s plenty of good information available online if you choose wisely.

Here are a few good resources:

Ohio Department of Health

Ars Technica — Updated Daily

World Health Organization

 

Closed for the season

StephensAstro —  December 22, 2019 — Leave a comment
Photo: "Solstice Skies over Stephens" Photo by David Dreimiller.

“Solstice Skies over Stephens” Photo by David Dreimiller.

The winter months in Northeastern Ohio occasionally bring excellent conditions for astronomy; the season also brings the risk of deep snow, ice, frigid temperatures, and plenty of clouds. For the aforementioned reasons and more, Stephens Memorial Observatory is closed for the season. We thank everyone who attended our Open Night offerings in 2019 and hope to see you again in the new year, possibly in March. Until then, stay safe and warm, and keep looking up! Unless you’re under a bird. Then you might want to rethink.

Photo: The Orion Nebula by James Guilford, 2012

The Orion Nebula, Messier 42, as it may appear to viewers through small telescopes. Photo by James Guilford, 2012.

UPDATE: Over the course of the event 29 visitors enjoyed exquisite views of the Orion Nebula. Excellent seeing conditions allowed the nebular cloud to fill and extend beyond the telescope’s field of view at 104X magnification; possibly the finest view of that astronomical object that we have enjoyed. Also viewed was the red supergiant star, Betelgeuse, which is at the left shoulder of the constellation’s mythic figure. Betelgeuse has been the topic of discussion lately because the variable star has dimmed noticeably from its more typical brilliance.

Stephens Memorial Observatory of Hiram College will host a special Public Night Saturday, December 21, from 9:00 to 11:00 p.m. The Great Orion Nebula will be the featured object on a night billed as a “holiday gift.” The observatory is usually closed for the winter but organizers wished to offer views of the nebula this year. Clear skies will be especially important for this event.

Cloudy skies at the scheduled starting time cancel the event in which case, the observatory will not open. No reservations are required and there is no admission fee for observatory public nights.

The Observatory is located on Wakefield Road (Rt. 82) less than a quarter of a mile west of Route 700 in Hiram. There is no parking at the Observatory. Visitors may park on permissible side streets near the Post Office, a short distance east of the observatory.

Updates on programming are available via the Observatory’s Twitter feed: @StephensObs and on this website.

Photo: Asteroid/dwarf planet Hygiea. Credit: ESO/P. Vernazza et al./MISTRAL algorithm (ONERA/CNRS)

A new SPHERE/VLT image of Hygiea, which could be the Solar System’s smallest dwarf planet yet. As an object in the main asteroid belt, Hygiea satisfies right away three of the four requirements to be classified as a dwarf planet: it orbits around the Sun, it is not a moon and, unlike a planet, it has not cleared the neighborhood around its orbit. The final requirement is that it have enough mass that its own gravity pulls it into a roughly spherical shape. This is what VLT observations have now revealed about Hygiea. Credit: ESO/P. Vernazza et al./MISTRAL algorithm (ONERA/CNRS)

Astronomers using ESO’s SPHERE instrument at the Very Large Telescope (VLT) have revealed that the asteroid Hygiea could be classified as a dwarf planet. The object is the fourth largest in the asteroid belt after Ceres, Vesta and Pallas. For the first time, astronomers have observed Hygiea in sufficiently high resolution to study its surface and determine its shape and size. They found that Hygiea is spherical, potentially taking the crown from Ceres as the smallest dwarf planet in the Solar System.

As an object in the main asteroid belt, Hygiea satisfies right away three of the four requirements to be classified as a dwarf planet: it orbits around the Sun, it is not a moon and, unlike a planet, it has not cleared the neighborhood around its orbit. The final requirement is that it has enough mass for its own gravity to pull it into a roughly spherical shape. This is what VLT observations have now revealed about Hygiea.

“Thanks to the unique capability of the SPHERE instrument on the VLT, which is one of the most powerful imaging systems in the world, we could resolve Hygiea’s shape, which turns out to be nearly spherical,” says lead researcher Pierre Vernazza from the Laboratoire d’Astrophysique de Marseille in France. “Thanks to these images, Hygiea may be reclassified as a dwarf planet, so far the smallest in the Solar System.”

The team also used the SPHERE observations to constrain Hygiea’s size, putting its diameter at just over 430 km. Pluto, the most famous of dwarf planets, has a diameter close to 2,400 km, while Ceres is close to 950 km in size.

Surprisingly, the observations also revealed that Hygiea lacks the very large impact crater that scientists expected to see on its surface, the team report in the study published today in Nature Astronomy. Hygiea is the main member of one of the largest asteroid families, with close to 7,000 members that all originated from the same parent body. Astronomers expected the event that led to the formation of this numerous family to have left a large, deep mark on Hygiea.

“This result came as a real surprise as we were expecting the presence of a large impact basin, as is the case on Vesta,” says Vernazza. Although the astronomers observed Hygiea’s surface with a 95 percent coverage, they could only identify two unambiguous craters. “Neither of these two craters could have been caused by the impact that originated the Hygiea family of asteroids whose volume is comparable to that of a 100 km-sized object. They are too small,” explains study co-author Miroslav Brož of the Astronomical Institute of Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic.

The team decided to investigate further. Using numerical simulations, they deduced that Hygiea’s spherical shape and large family of asteroids are likely the result of a major head-on collision with a large projectile of diameter between 75 and 150 km. Their simulations show this violent impact, thought to have occurred about 2 billion years ago, completely shattered the parent body. Once the left-over pieces reassembled, they gave Hygiea its round shape and thousands of companion asteroids. “Such a collision between two large bodies in the asteroid belt is unique in the last 3–4 billion years,” says Pavel Ševeček, a PhD student at the Astronomical Institute of Charles University who also participated in the study.

Studying asteroids in detail has been possible thanks not only to advances in numerical computation, but also to more powerful telescopes. “Thanks to the VLT and the new generation adaptive-optics instrument SPHERE, we are now imaging main belt asteroids with unprecedented resolution, closing the gap between Earth-based and interplanetary mission observations,” Vernazza concludes.

Photo: First Quarter Moon, October 5, 2019.

Our First-Quarter Moon on International Observe the Moon Night, as seen through the Stephens telescope at 9:04 PM EDT. iPhone SE at eyepiece.

 

Our October 5 Open Night was the local event of the International Observe the Moon Night — an annual occurrence meant that encourages observation, appreciation, and understanding of our Moon and its connection to planetary science and exploration. Over the course of the night at Stephens Memorial Observatory some 34 enthusiastic and inquisitive visitors attended and were treated to beautiful and unusual views of Earth’s Moon and planet Saturn.

Unusual? The earliest visitors arrived just as the telescope was set to go … with the sky still bright with twilight. The Moon appeared light and against a power-blue sky background instead of the usual darkness of space. Saturn, invisible to the eye in the bright sky, was also viewed through the telescope in surprising detail.

 

Zooming in on the previous image: That dot in the center of dark-floored crater Alphonsus is its central peak. Over the course of two hours sun rose over that pinnacle making it brighter, and other features began to emerge as we watched. Alphonsus slightly overlaps the crater Ptolemaeus.

After darkness fell enthusiastic visitors took turns looking at a crater and watching a mountain peak become illuminated at sunrise on the Moon! It was a fine night appreciating a sight too often ignored: the wonder of Luna, our nearest neighbor in space.

Graphic: International Observe the Moon Night - 2019

Save the Date! International Observe the Moon Night will take place on October 5th 2019.

Stephens Memorial Observatory of Hiram College will host a Public Night Saturday, October 5, from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. Earth’s Moon will be featured as our local participation in International Observe the Moon Night — a worldwide appreciation of Earth’s nearest neighbor in space. As an exciting bonus, planet Saturn will float near Moon in our skies and will also be observed. Other objects may also be viewed. Given good viewing conditions the Observatory’s 1901 vintage telescope delivers outstanding detail of the Moon and impressive views of Saturn with its distinctive rings.

An interesting activity any time of year is to make note of the daily changes we see in the phases of Moon. Open the PDF to print a handy guide and journal for lunar observation: Moon-Observation_Journal.

Cloudy skies at the scheduled starting time cancel the event in which case, the observatory will not open. No reservations are required and there is no admission fee for observatory public nights.

The Observatory is located on Wakefield Road (Rt. 82) less than a quarter of a mile west of Route 700 in Hiram. There is no parking at the Observatory. Visitors may park on permissible side streets near the Post Office, a short distance east of the observatory.

Updates on programming are available via the Observatory’s Twitter feed: @StephensObs or its website: StephensObservatory.org.

Image: Saturn and Moons

Simulated View: Saturn and Moons, September 14, 2019 at 9:30 PM EDT. Image via Gas Giants

 

UPDATE: Thanks to the 29 visitors, of a wide variety of ages, who came out Saturday night to share the view with us. Early arrivals got good views of Saturn. In the middle of our evening our guests saw Saturn under improving conditions and the rising Moon as it cleared neighboring trees. Those who visited or stayed late viewed the Full Harvest Moon (sometimes through tree leaves). Our Moon, though fascinating to view through our telescope even when Full or nearly so, created huge amounts of natural light “pollution” as it illuminated atmospheric haze and thin clouds — we were unable to see the Great Andromeda Galaxy or the M15 star cluster. The Moon got tangled in trees again as it arced higher into the sky. Our final visitors of the evening, however, were rewarded for their patience with views of the Perseus Double Cluster after it cleared trees. We love trees but not so close to the observatory!

Stephens Memorial Observatory of Hiram College will host a Public Night Saturday, September 14, from 9:00 to 11:00 PM. On the observing list are: Earth’s Moon, Saturn, the Messier 15 star cluster, and, if sky conditions permit, the Andromeda Galaxy, and Perseus Double star cluster. Given good viewing conditions the Observatory’s 1901 vintage telescope delivers outstanding detail of the Moon and impressive views of Saturn and distinctive rings.

Cloudy skies at the scheduled starting time cancel the event in which case, the observatory will not open. No reservations are required and there is no admission fee for observatory public nights.

The Observatory is located on Wakefield Road (Rt. 82) less than a quarter of a mile west of Route 700 in Hiram. There is no parking at the Observatory. Visitors may park on permissible side streets near the Post Office, a short distance east of the observatory.

Updates on programming are available via the Observatory’s Twitter feed: @StephensObs or its website: StephensObservatory.org.