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The Last Month in Astronomy


AUG-11-2011 • Graphene in Space • Astronomers using the Spitzer Space Telescope have detected the first extragalactic detection of a fullerene molecule (C70) and maybe the first detection of graphene (C24). These are carbon molecules that have unusual properties. Fullerenes, aka Buckyballs, form a three dimensional sphere. Graphene is a flat sheet of carbon atoms. The first synthesis of graphene in 2004 led to the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics. It might be that these large carbon molecules are created by stellar winds in metal poor galaxies such as the Magellanic Clouds which is where these discoveries were made.

AUG-10-2011 • Opportunity at Endeavour • The Mars rover Opportunity, now the only working Martian rover, has arrived at Spirit point which overlooks the crater. Opportunity traveled 13 miles to get this location named after the now defunct rover. The actual distance from Victoria crater to Endeavour was 7 miles as the bird flies but there aren’t any birds on Mars.

AUG-05-2011 • Juno on the Way • NASA’s Juno spacecraft is on the way to Jupiter. This spacecraft will be the deepest space mission to use solar power. The plutonium needed to power spacecraft deeper than this is in very short supply. Juno’s state of the art solar panels will arrive at Jupiter in 5 years. When it arrives it will enter into a polar orbit. Its mission is to study the Jovian planet’s structure by studying its magnetosphere and atmosphere.

AUG-04-2011 • Beachfront property on Mars • The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has discovered features that suggest contemporary flowing water during Mars’ warmest months. “The best explanation for these observations so far is the flow of briny water” according to Alfred McEwen, University of Arizona. This the PI for the HiRISE camera. These features are up to hundreds of meters long but the width is 5 meters at most. The reason why salt water is suspected is because the temperatures are too warm at these times for carbon dioxide frost and the too cold for plain water.

AUG-03-2011 • New Open Clusters • The VISTA infrared survey telescope at ESO’s Paranal Observatory has discovered nearly 100 open clusters that had been blocked from our view because of the dust in the Milky Way Galaxy. VISTA is able to see these clusters because the sensitive infrared detectors effectively cut through the dust. Many of the clusters are small with only 10 to 20 stars. In visible light the dust reduces the brightness of these clusters by a factor of 100 million.

AUG-01-2011 • Oxygen Now Available • Almost 240 years after oxygen was officially discovered on Earth, oxygen molecules have been found in space. If this sounds like old news remember that oxygen atoms and molecules are different. Take a breath. You are using O2 molecules, not atoms. The discovery was done with the Herschel Space Observatory while it was studying the Orion nebula. Researchers expect to use the infrared detectors on that spacecraft to find molecular oxygen in other star-forming regions.

JUL-27-2011 • Earth Trojan found • Asteroids that stay in a location called a Lagrangian point are called Trojans. Jupiter has a large number of such asteroids. The first Earth Trojan has been discovered. The WISE spacecraft detected the asteroid in the infrared. It is 1000 feet in diameter and it follows a strange kind of orbit called a lissajous. The location of the asteroid is at L4. It stays about 60 degrees ahead of Earth but it is rarely right on the Earth’s orbit. What is of interest, maybe, is that if an alien spacecraft wanted to hide out in our solar system, these stable Lagrangian points would be the best place. We have never seen anything like an alien spacecraft but we are only just now able to detect a 1000 foot object - the size of the Starship Enterprise. The asteroid was detectable because its infrared signature indicates a temperature near 0 centigrade, relatively warm.

JUL-22-2011 • Water Reservoir • It appears that black holes do not dissolve in water. If they did then quasar APM 08279+5255 would probably disappear but the 20 billion solar mass blackhole is as happy as a clam. For comparison, the Milky Way galaxy holds large amounts of water vapor but the total amount is 4000 times less than in the quasar. The water vapor around the black hole is in a gaseous region that is hundreds of light-years wide. If all of the material around the black hole falls in then the final black hole will be 6 times its current size but that might not happen.


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