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Monday, 4 January 2010

SPA ENB No. 279

                 The SOCIETY for POPULAR ASTRONOMY
         Electronic News Bulletin No. 279    2010 January 3

Here is the latest round-up of news from the Society for Popular
Astronomy.  The SPA is Britain's liveliest astronomical society, with
members all over the world.  We accept subscription payments online
at our secure site and can take credit and debit cards.  You can join
or renew via a secure server or just see how much we have to offer by

By Alastair McBeath, SPA Meteor Section Director

A spectacular fireball was reported to us from eleven places scattered
across southern Yorkshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk and
Cambridgeshire around 12:45 UT on December 19. It was almost
certainly well in excess of full Moon brilliance at its brightest to
be seen so widely in the near-noon daytime, perhaps in the magnitude
range -15 to -20. Regrettably, many of the witnesses were on the road
at the time, and few people managed to give sufficient information to
allow a reasonable trajectory for the event to be estimated. However,
the fireball was probably high above the North Sea off eastern England
and perhaps partly over northeastern East Anglia too. A majority of
those observers able to suggest a sky-path for the meteor described it
as possibly angled somewhere between north-south to northwest-
southeast (though two reports favoured the opposite south-north to
southeast-northwest direction-range). It seems to have remained
visible for about 3 to 3.5 seconds from most estimates. Various colours
were suggested by different witnesses, always a subjective topic
anyway, but five reports favoured a very bright, silvery white, while
one each preferred yellow, orange-yellow or red-yellow for the main
fireball. One witness spotted some slight fragmentation very late in
the flight, but two other people saw none at all (this can sometimes
depend on the angle from which the meteor's path is viewed). One
observer in north Norfolk, plausibly the person closest to the possible
trajectory, suggested a faint simultaneous sound may have occurred as
the fireball flared to its near-terminal maximum brightness. Grateful
thanks go to everyone who sent in a sighting directly, and also to
Assistant Meteor Director David Entwistle, and Len Entwisle, who helped
round-up additional reports. The General Chat Forum topic at: , featured some of the initial notices and
subsequent discussion regarding this meteor, including links to some
online media coverage (but sadly no images).

All further UK and nearby fireball observations, whether of this event
or any others, would be most welcome. See the "Making and Reporting
Fireball Observations" page of the SPA website, at: , for details of what information to send,
and where to.

By Alastair McBeath, SPA Meteor Section Director

The general pattern shown by the Geminids this year, of a protracted
maximum, perhaps with several stronger phases on December 13-14,
has remained much as described from the preliminary findings last
time, judging by the latest International Meteor Organization's (IMO's)
"live" results (see: for details). The better
rates now seem to have continued for longer than originally estimated,
however. Zenithal Hourly Rates (ZHRs) of ~105 +/- 15 persisted fairly
consistently from about 15:30 UT on December 13 (not December 14
as mentioned last time - my apologies for the slip!) till roughly
20h UT on December 14. Within this period, at least two main peaks
were suggested, near 19h-20h UT (ZHRs ~120 +/- 10) and 01h-02h UT
(ZHRs ~130 +/- 10), but there were other fluctuations whose
significance has not been so clearly-confirmed. Activity had dropped
markedly by the mid-evening UT hours on the 14th, to ZHRs of ~40-50
between 21:30-01:30 UT on December 14-15, and dwindled quickly
thereafter, much as normal.

It has been possible to confirm a few elements of these IMO findings
from data reaching the SPA directly, with the initial few radio results
finding generally "strong" meteor-echo counts right across the expected
shower peak. However, many of our visual contributors struggled with
unhelpful conditions, and there were too few complete Geminid
observations made under better skies (limiting magnitude at least +5.5,
less than 20% average cloud cover) to allow a particularly detailed
analysis this time. Of 1016 visual Geminids reported to us, only 182
could be included in the magnitude analysis, for example, yielding an
ideal-sky-corrected mean magnitude of +2.4. Just 83 sporadics
similarly survived, giving a comparison mean magnitude of +2.9, both
values marginally brighter than expected, probably because of the
very limited data samples. A few observers suggested there may have
been more brighter Geminids about than normal this year, and there
were the usual good numbers of Geminid fireballs spotted, sometimes
even through cloud-cover, especially on December 13-14. Despite this,
the pattern of Geminid magnitudes seemed overall pretty typical. Those
who thought such rates were better were perhaps instead merely lucky!

Many thanks naturally go to all our contributing observers, as listed
below, including those who reported casual data via the SPA and UK
Weather World Forums (see  and  respectively), and the numerous North
American Meteor Network (NAMN) watchers, whose reports were
forwarded most swiftly to us by the efforts of NAMN leader Mark Davis
(see for further information). In the
following, "I" means still-imaging, "R" radio and "V" visual results
were made by that person:

Salvador Aguirre (Mexico; NAMN; V), "akkan"(England; V), "The Bat"
(England; V), Peter Bias (Florida, USA; NAMN; V), Michael Boschat
(Nova Scotia, Canada; NAMN; V), Jeff Brower (British Columbia,
Canada; R), "chris51" (England; V), "coldfieldboundary" (Belgium; V),
"Dazmaster75" (unstated location; V), Pat Duggan (England; V), Paul
Duggan (England; V), David Entwistle (England; R & V), Mike Feist
(England; V), George Gliba (Maryland, USA; NAMN; V), Bill Godley
(Oklahoma, USA; NAMN; V), Shelagh Godwin (England; V), Wayne
Hally (New Jersey, USA; NAMN; V), Dave Hancox (Scotland; I & V),
Ken Hodonsky (Oklahoma, USA; NAMN; V), "louise79" (Northern
Ireland; V), Tony Markham (England; V), Adam Marsh (New South
Wales, Australia; NAMN; V), Mikhail Maslov (Novosibirsk, Russia;
NAMN; V), John Mason (Wales; V), Michael Mattiazzo (Victoria,
Australia; NAMN; V), Alastair McBeath (England; V), D. E. J.
McGlinchey (Wales; V), Martin McKenna (Northern Ireland; V), "orson"
(unstated location; V), Robin Scagell (England; I), Leo Stachowicz
(England; I), Jeff Stevens (England; V), R. Stevenson (England; V),
Richard Taibi (Maryland, USA; NAMN; V), Bill Walbeck (Pennsylvania,
USA; NAMN; V), Harry Waldron (Virginia, USA; NAMN; V).

Those with Geminid results still to submit are invited to do so with
all speed please, to be included in the next update once the full radio
results are available, around or soon after mid-January, all being well.

By Alastair McBeath, SPA Meteor Section Director

IYA2009's last full Moon, December's second, on the 31st, means a
waning gibbous Moon for the Quadrantid maximum, due on 2010
January 3, around 19h UT. There is the possibility that a short-lived,
quite strong, Quadrantid peak could occur at some stage between
roughly 12h to 16h UT that day instead. This alternative timing is of
course mostly in daylight for Britain, while the ~19h timing is almost
as poor, since the shower's peak is typically short and sharp, and
the Quadrantid radiant, while circumpolar from the UK, is nearing its
daily lowest then. Add to that the Moon will rise within 15 minutes
either side of 20h UT for Britain that evening (later rising times
further south), and this means it is highly likely we shall see little
of the shower from here this time. The radiant is set in a fairly
starless void of northern Boötes on January 3-4 (roughly midway between
Hercules' right foot, Boötes' head, Ursa Major's tail-tip and the
largest curve of Draco, once part of a now-discarded constellation,
the Wall Quadrant, hence its otherwise obscure name). This area of
sky is very low to the north during the first half of the night
(lowest at about 20:30 UT), and is only properly observable after

Maximum Quadrantid ZHRs have been around 120 in recent times,
though the highest value does vary somewhat from year to year. It
can be as low as 60, or up to 200, and has occasionally persisted
for a couple of hours close to its best level. The 2009 maximum
return was particularly unusual, as ZHRs of 100+ persisted for
about 14 hours, and there may have been several peaks, at least
two of which reached ZHR levels of ~130-160 (see most recently
ENB 261, at: ). Even in more normal years,
the peak time may alter slightly, and some returns since 2000 seem
to have produced an additional, primarily radio meteor, maximum
about 9-12 hours after the visual one. If this happens again, the
well-past-midnight part of January 3-4 may be worth watching on
still, if clear skies appear, despite the bright Moon. Note too that
while 2008 produced two radio maxima, the first was roughly six
hours BEFORE the visual maximum occurred  - which itself was about
3 to 4 hours later than expected! For the 2008 events, see ENBs
236 ( ) and 238 ( ).
Fainter radio and telescopic Quadrantids have been observed to peak
up to 14 hours before the main visual event in the past too.

Quadrantids are medium-speed meteors, often reasonably bright near
the visual maximum. Much lower numbers of them should be present
from about January 1-5, but recent IMO video results have suggested
the shower may remain detectable instrumentally at least from about
December 27 or 28 to January 12, a far longer period than previous
visual investigations had found. Anyone hopefully intending to brave
the moonlight after midnight on January 3-4 should watch as much clear
sky as comfortably possible, but looking away from the Moon, and
where as little reflected moonlit landscape as possible is near your
facing direction. For more information on January's meteor activity,
see: .

Be well-prepared for the probable conditions outdoors after all the
recent snow and ice, good luck and clear skies!

BBC News

The Moon has the coldest place yet measured in the Solar System by a
spacecraft.  The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has been observing the
insides of permanently shadowed lunar craters, and has found that
surface temperatures inside the coldest craters in the northern polar
region can dip as low as -249 C.  That occurred near the 'winter
solstice', which took place in October.  The Moon does have seasons --
just about.  The tilt of the lunar axis with respect to the normal to
the ecliptic is 1.54 degrees, so it causes a small, three-degree
change in the elevation of the Sun through the course of a year.  For
most places, that makes negligible difference, but at the poles, it
results in a significant variation in the extent of shadows and
temperatures.  Calculations suggest that one would have to travel to a
distance beyond the Kuiper Belt -- well beyond the orbit of Neptune --
to find objects with surfaces so cold.  The measurement tends to
support the idea that some craters on the Moon could harbour water-ice
for extended periods.


The Cassini spacecraft has photographed a flash of sunlight reflecting
from a lake on Saturn's moon Titan, confirming the presence of liquid
hydrocarbons on a part of the moon dotted with many lake-like basins.
Cassini scientists have been hoping to see such a specular reflection
ever since the spacecraft began orbiting Saturn in 2004, but until
recently Titan's northern hemisphere, where most of the lakes are
located, has been veiled in winter darkness.  Now, however, the
seasons are changing and sunlight has returned to the north, allowing
Cassini to capture a picture which shows sunlight reflecting from the
smooth surface of a liquid.  Scientists have theorized for 20 years
that Titan's cold surface could have seas or lakes of liquid
hydrocarbons, making it the only other planetary body besides the
Earth believed to have liquid on its surface.  While data from Cassini
have not indicated any vast seas, they have shown what appeared to be
large lakes near Titan's north and south poles.

In 2008, Cassini scientists using infrared data identified the
presence of liquid in Ontario Lacus, the largest lake in Titan's
southern hemisphere.  But they still wanted to confirm liquid in the
northern hemisphere, where the basins are larger and more numerous.
At last, in July, they saw a reflection at the southern shoreline of a
lake called Kraken Mare, which covers about 400,000 square kilometres,
an area larger than the Caspian Sea, the largest lake on Earth.  By
comparing that new image to radar and near-infrared images acquired
since 2006, scientists were able to show that the shoreline of Kraken
Mare has been stable over the last three years and that Titan has an
ongoing hydrological cycle that brings liquid (in this case probably
methane) to the surface.

Space Science Institute

The Hubble telescope has discovered the smallest object yet
detected in the Kuiper Belt, a ring of icy debris that circulates
in the Solar System just beyond Neptune.  The object is only 1 km
across and is 6.8 billion kilometres away.  The smallest Kuiper Belt
Object (KBO) seen previously, in reflected light, is roughly 50 km
across.  This is the first observational evidence for a population of
comet-sized bodies in the Kuiper Belt that are being ground down
through collisions.  The Kuiper Belt is therefore collisionally
evolving, meaning that the region's icy content has been modified over
the past 4.5 billion years.

The object detected by Hubble is so faint, at 35th magnitude, it is
100 times dimmer than anything the telescope can see directly.  So
then how did the space telescope uncover such a small body?  Hubble
has three optical instruments called Fine Guidance Sensors (FGS).  The
FGSs provide navigational information to the telescope's attitude-
control systems by looking at selected guide stars for pointing.  They
would also be able to see the effects of a small object passing in
front of a star.  That would cause a brief occultation and diffraction
signature in the FGS data as the light from the guide star was bent
around the intervening foreground KBO.  They selected 4.5 years of FGS
observations for analysis.  Hubble spent a total of 12,000 hours
during that period looking along a strip of sky within 20° of the
Solar System's ecliptic plane, where the majority of KBOs should be.
The team analyzed the FGS observations of 50,000 guide stars in total,
and found one single 0.3-second-long occultation event.  In
interpreting it, they had to make some assumptions about the nature of
the object's orbit.  The duration of the occultation was short largely
because of Earth's orbital motion around the Sun.  The distance was
estimated from the duration of the occultation, and the amount of
dimming was used to calculate the size of the object.  Hubble
observations of nearby stars show that a number of them have Kuiper
Belt-like discs of icy debris encircling them.  The discs are thought
to be the remnants of planetary formation.  The prediction is that
over billions of years the debris should collide, grinding the
KBO-type objects down to smaller pieces that were not part of the
original population.

Science Daily

Astronomers have discovered a 'super-Earth' transiting in front of a
red dwarf star 40 light-years from Earth.  A super-Earth is defined as
a planet between one and ten times the mass of the Earth.  The
new-found planet, GJ1214b, is about 6.5 times as massive as the Earth.
Its host star, GJ1214, is a small, red M-type star about one-fifth the
size of the Sun.  It has a surface temperature of only about 2700C and
a luminosity only three-thousandths that of the Sun.  GJ1214b orbits
its star once every 38 hours at a distance of only 1.3 million miles.
Astronomers estimate the planet's temperature to be about 200 C, which
is less hot than any other known transiting planet, because it orbits
a very dim star.  Since GJ1214b crosses in front of its star,
astronomers were able to measure its radius, which is about 2.7 times
that of Earth, makes it one of the two smallest transiting planets
known so far.

Astronomers found the planet with the MEarth (pronounced 'mirth')
Project -- an array of eight identical 16-inch telescopes that monitor
a pre-selected list of 2,000 red dwarf stars.  MEarth looks for stars
that change brightness.  The goal is to find a planet that crosses in
front of, or transits, its star.  The Kepler mission also uses
transits to look for Earth-sized planets orbiting Sun-like stars.
However, such systems dim by only one part in ten thousand. The higher
precision required to detect the drop means that such planets can be
found only from space.  In contrast, a super-Earth transiting a small,
red dwarf star yields a greater proportional decrease in brightness,
detectable from the ground.  Astronomers then use instruments like the
HARPS (High-Accuracy Radial-Velocity Planet Searcher) spectrograph at
the European Southern Observatory to measure the companion's mass and
confirm that it is a planet, as they did with this discovery.


A team of Chinese astronomers has discovered a giant planet close to
the binary-star system QS Virginis.  Although dormant now, the two
stars will one day erupt in a violent nova-like outburst.  QS Virginis
is 157 light-years from the Sun and the system is made up of a cool
red dwarf and a hot dense white dwarf just 840,000 km apart or about
twice the distance from the Earth to the Moon.  They take just 3 hours
and 37 minutes to complete each orbit.  No telescope can see them as
separate stars, but as they move in their orbit the two stars
successively eclipse one another, leading to characteristic periodic
changes in the brightness of the system.  In many close binaries,
described as cataclysmic variables (CVs), material flows from the red
dwarf star onto its much hotter and denser companion.  The stars of
QS Virginis are only slightly too far apart for this to happen, so the
system is 'hibernating' -- relatively quiet at the moment.

The astronomers measured the light fluctuations of QS Virginis
throughout the orbit.  By timing the eclipses, they found that the
duration of the orbit changed, with the time of mid-eclipse
periodically advanced or delayed.  The shift is explained by an unseen
third object exerting a gravitational pull on the two stars, so
sometimes the light has to travel a little further and sometimes a
little less far to reach us.  From their measurements, the Chinese
team deduced that there is a giant planet, with a minimum of 6.4 times
the mass of Jupiter, at an average distance from the stars of 4.2
times that from the Earth to the Sun.  The red dwarf star is being
braked by the interaction between its stellar wind and magnetic field
and is decelerating.  As it loses energy it must move closer to the
white dwarf, and some time in the next few thousand years it will be
near enough that hydrogen will start to flow from it onto its small
but hot companion star.

The hydrogen will then slowly accumulate on the white dwarf and build
up in a hot dense layer close to the star's surface.  In due course
the density and temperature at the base of the hydrogen layer will
become high enough for nuclear reactions to take place.  The resulting
explosion will lead to a spectacular outburst of radiation, and the
binary system will temporarily become many times brighter than normal.
Such an explosion is only in a superficial layer and does not
fundamentally change the star, as in the case of a supernova explosion;
it can, and in many systems does, take place repeatedly.  Cataclysmic
variable stars all operate in that fashion, with repeated explosions
that take place on characteristic time-scales ranging from about a
fortnight upwards.  If the typical interval between outbursts is as
long as decades, the object is called a recurrent nova; a nova is
simply an object of the same type that has been seen to explode only

University of Wisconsin at Madison.

For some 50 years it has been recognized that many star clusters
include a small proportion of objects called blue stragglers, which
are too hot and lumninous to be as old as the rest of the stars in the
cluster - they ought to have expired by now.  It has become apparent
that they must have been rejuvenated by receiving a substantial
donation of additional material from another star, usually the
companion in a binary system of which the star we now see as a blue
straggler is a member.

A recent discussion has featured the galactic star cluster NGC 188.
It has incorporated radial-velocity measurements donated by the
moderator of these Bulletins and his collaborator James Gunn, made
about 30 years with the 200-inch telescope at Palomar.  NGC 188 is
situated in the sky near Polaris, and is some 6,000 light-years from
the Earth; it consists of several thousand old stars, all about the
same age, and it includes 21 blue stragglers.

The team noted that at least three-quarters of the blue stragglers in
NGC 188 occur in binary systems, including one binary system made up
of two blue stragglers.  That object, they argue, is emblematic of the
complex binary dances and exchanges, including 'partner swapping',
occurring in the NGC 188 environment.  Almost certainly the blue
stragglers formed in separate binary systems, and then the two
binaries concerned encountered one another, ejecting two of the stars
and leaving behind that unusual object.  The survey of NGC 188's blue
stragglers also reveals that the stars are spinning much faster than
an average star, a quality that the astronomers hope might lead to
estimates of how recently the blue stragglers were formed.

Bulletin compiled by Clive Down

(c) 2010 the Society for Popular Astronomy


Good Clear Skies
Colin James Watling
Real Astronomer and head of the Comet section for LYRA (Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth Regional Astronomers) also head of K.A.G (Kessingland Astronomy Group) and Navigator (Astrogator) of the Stars (Fieldwork)

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