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The Last Month in Astronomy


11-DEC-2009 Big, Big Black Holes Want to find a very big black hole? Look at the center of galaxies. 4 new super-massive black holes have been found all at the center of galaxies. These galaxies have “Active Galactic Nuclei”, that is, the centers of these galaxies are very active and they emits vast amounts of energy. This energy shows up as jets of energy that shoot out perpendicular to their galactic planes. To study the infrared spectrum in sufficient detail for these AGN requires a telescope with a diameter of 100 meters. Well, that’s not possible. Instead, the light from two infrared telescopes almost 100 meters apart (Keck) are combined thus creating a long-baseline interferometer.

10-DEC-2009 Spirit Still Stuck The Mars Rover Spirit has a rear wheel that seems to have stopped working. In its current configuration including its tilt, Spirit might not survive the next winter season. Southern Mars next winter solstice is May 13, 2010.

08-DEC-2009 MRO almost working The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been taken out of “safe mode”. A number of software files have been uploaded to the MRO that should prevent future outages. In 2009 there have been 4 events causing the MRO to go into safe mode.

08-DEC-2009 Methane on Mars About a year ago, scientists noted concentrations of methane on Mars that made little sense. First, if the source is not biological, it should break down over time. If it doesn’t break down, it should by now have spread out over the planet and no discernible concentrations should be found. So why do we see these? One possibility is that the methane comes from meteorites. However, this possibility appears to be very unlikely because meteorites would not release enough methane. According to Mark Sephton “The list of possible sources of methane gas is getting smaller and, excitingly, extraterrestrial life still remains an option.”

07-DEC-2009 Phil Plait Moves On Dr. Phil Plait, best known for the website, is making another career move. Last August he was named the new president of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) and as of 1/1/2010 he will be leaving that position. Phil Plait is moving on to something having to do with astronomy and television.

04-Dec-2009 LHC cranks up After 20 years development, and a start that was nothing more than a fizzle, and a year of repairs the Large Hadron Collider has started productive work. The initial work is using relatively low-energy collisions but that energy will be gradually increased and, with a bit of luck, the LHC will be at full power in 2010.

27-NOV-2009 Shuttle Success The last shuttle mission of 2009 was completed on November 27. One item installed on the last mission is the Automatic Identification System. The AIS is being used to demonstrate the ability to track ocean traffic. For the year, the shuttle completed 5 missions including STS-125 which repaired the Hubble Space Telescope. It was the most productive year for the shuttle since the Columbia disaster in 2003. Currently, only 5 more missions are planned for the shuttle but this is subject to change.

14-NOV-2009 The Moon is Alive! NASA announced that the LCROSS mission not only found water in the crater Cabeus but it caused 25 gallons of the stuff to be displaced by the impactor. “The moon is alive” according to Anthony Colaprete, the chief scientist for LCROSS. Although this was just one mission, the odds are that there is quite a bit of water in these cold, dark craters that never see sunlight and that might be as cold as -360 degrees Fahrenheit. The water may come from asteroids or it may even be formed on the moon when hydrogen, pushed along by the solar winds, reacts with oxygen locked up in the lunar regolith. Weeks earlier, the Indian spacecraft Chandrayaan 1 found microscopic films of water over large areas of the moon. While this water is insignificant for future space travelers, it does show that water will not instantly sublime when it is mixed in with lunar soils.,0,2036369.story

13-NOV-2009 O2 on Earths? Oxygen has been found on two earth-sized bodies. Unfortunately, they aren’t planets. They are stars, white dwarfs, located 200-400 light years away. Stellar models suggested that stars around 7 times the mass of the Sun would consume hydrogen, then helium and then carbon. They would consume oxygen if they were more massive but they don’t have enough mass that would generate the pressures and temperatures needed to cause oxygen molecules to fuse. Thus the star grows cold while possessing an oxygen-rich “atmosphere”. Dr. Boris Gansicke said “These surface abundances of oxygen imply that these are white dwarfs displaying their bare oxygen-neon cores, and that they may have descended from the most massive progenitor stars in that class.”


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