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Thursday, 23 December 2010

SPA ENB No. 301

                 The SOCIETY for POPULAR ASTRONOMY
         Electronic News Bulletin No. 301  2010 December 19
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 Andrew Robertson, SPA Planetary Section Director
The South Equatorial Belt (SEB) on Jupiter is continuing to revive.
Visually it appears as a dark streak about half as wide and half as
dark as the NEB across the longitude range CM 260 to 30 degrees
approximately.  At the preceding end, from about CM 280 to CM 260
degrees, it dips down in the direction of the Equatorial Zone.
White spots have been observed on Saturn.  Here is a BAA Bulletin
(slightly edited):
by Mike Foulkes, BAA Saturn Section director.
On 2010 Dec 8 two spots were recorded on Saturn at the same latitude.
First, a bright spot was recorded close to the central meridian in an
image taken at 02:12 UT by Sadegh Ghomizadeh in Iran.  Its provisional
position is latitude 37.5 degrees north (planetographic), longitude
(System 3) 248 degrees.  Just over 5 hours later, David Gray in the UK
visually recorded a light spot approaching the p. limb.  Its
provisional position measured from David's drawing is latitude 37.5
degrees north, longitude (System 3) 29 degrees.  Saturn is well placed
for observation before dawn and more observations are urgently
required to confirm those features.
I've also posted on the SPA web site
an image taken on December 11.  Observations are strongly encouraged.
Venus is a bright morning object displaying a crescent phase; this is
a good time to look for the Ashen Light.  The BAA Venus section
director Richard McKim has asked for observations of Venus and I quote
from him, "At or before 7 am the sky is still dark enough (and the
phase ideal) to make a search for the Ashen Light either visually or
by imaging.  Negative observations will be of value, but not once the
sky has become too bright.  If the phenomenon is seen or suspected,
try hiding the bright crescent with an occulting bar or even placing
Venus at the edge of the field, to see whether it still remains
visible (and so to avoid the possibility of illusion)."
Any reports of observations would be most welcome via:
A selection of members' images/sketches can be seen on the SPA
Planetary Section's web page:
Alastair McBeath's meteor notes for January can be found on the SPA
By Richard Bailey SPA Solar Section Director
Poor weather conditions and the low autumn sun adversely affected
Section members' observing during November  In the first week small
NH AR1120 near the CM was joined by similar SH AR1121 by the E limb on
the 4th.  AR1121 was a return of AR1112 seen last month.  A burst of
activity followed around the 10th. when four ARs were to be seen
across the disc.  SH ARs 1121 and 1122 were nearing the W limb, SH AR
1123 by the CM and NH AR1124 inwards from the E one.  Activity stayed
good to the 19th, when new SH AR1125 was by the CM, NH AR1127 had
appeared at the E limb but 1121 and 1122 had vanished.  NH AR1127 was
on view almost to the end of the month crossing the disc westwards.
NH AR1130 came in the last week near the CM.
AR1124 had been the busiest of the month, on the 24th. a leader and
follower with good penumbrae had some smaller spots between them.
AR1126 developed a gaggle of small spots from the 10th to the 16th.
AR1127 was a fine single spot with a fine penumbra on the 24th.
Patches of limb faculae were seen occasionally .
MDF 1.67 R 21.31
Some large prominences were seen during the month, smaller ones being
frequent also around the perimeter.  On the 4th two excellent ones
stood out in the N, on the 16th also to the S and NW.  The 26th had a
profusion of large, bright prominences, many with striking structures.
On the 19th a rapidly extending and enlarging SW prominence was seen,
appearing almost detached from the disc.  A long NH filament persisted
in the first week, another in the third week.  On the 23rd to the 26th
a slender eastwards-curving filament was seen to start from the umbra
of AR1127.  Go to the Solar Section of the SPA website to see the full
report and a selection of splendid pictures and drawings made by
Section members.
MDF 4.63
The International Astronomical Union has announced the discovery of a
spiral structure around main-belt asteroid (596) Scheila.  Astronomers
found the curious shape in images obtained on Dec. 11 through the
Catalina 0.68-m Schmidt telescope.  Other observers have since
confirmed the phenomenon.  It is possible that a small asteroid might
have hit 596 Scheila, raising a cloud of dust which forms a nebula
around the larger space rock.  A 1-m-class impactor could be large
enough.  Alternatively, 596 Scheila might be a rare main-belt comet, a
body with the orbital characteristics of an asteroid and the physical
characteristics of a comet.  If so, a pocket of volatile ice might be
vaporizing to produce the spiralling tail.
University of Maryland
New findings appear to suggest that gold, platinum, palladium, and
other such elements found in the crusts and mantles of the Earth, the
Moon, and Mars arrived on mini-planet-sized impactors during the final
phase of planet formation in the Solar System.  The massive collisions
occurred within tens of millions of years after the even bigger impact
that has in recent years been supposed to have produced our Moon.
Current understanding of the formation of the Earth and other planets
with iron cores and silicate mantles suggests that heavy elements are
pulled into the planet cores as they form.  Thus, we should have an
Earth that has almost no gold or heavy-metal ores in its crust for us
to mine.  The fact that we do has long suggested that something must
have happened to bring more heavy elements to the Earth after
completion of the separation of the metallic core and silicate mantle.
But it has been open to question whether such late accretion of
material occurred in big chunks over a relatively short period of time
or as a 'rain' of smaller pieces of material over a longer time.
Now, some astronomers have used numerical models to try to see what
size objects would best match the needed criteria.  The criteria
include (1) providing the right amount of heavy metals to the Earth,
Moon and Mars; (2) being large enough to breach the crusts and mantles
of these bodies, creating local molten rock ponds from their impact
energy and efficiently mixing into the mantle; and (3) not being so
large as to cause a fragmenting and reformation of the planet cores,
which would result in most of the newly added elements being pulled
down into the cores.  The best results were obtained if the late-
accretion population were dominated by a limited number of massive
projectiles.  The largest Earth impactor would be roughly the size
of Pluto, while those hitting the Moon would be 250 to 300 km across.
The team asserts that those impactor sizes are consistent with
physical evidence such as the size distributions of present asteroids
and of ancient Martian impact scars.
University of California
Astronomers using the Keck II telescope in Hawaii say that a
planetary system in which they have obtained images showing a fourth
planet resembles an over-sized version of our Solar System.  Besides
having four giant planets, both systems also contain two 'debris
belts' composed of small rocky or icy objects, along with lots of
dust.  The planets orbit a sixth-magnitude star called HR 8799, which
is 40 parsecs away.  The astronomers estimate that the combined mass
of the four giant planets may be 20 times greater than the mass of all
the planets in our Solar System, and the debris belts also contain
much more mass than our own.  The newly discovered planet orbits
HR 8799 more closely than the other three, at a distance that would
correspond in the Solar System to between the orbits of Saturn and
Astronomers from Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland have found
what appears to be the most zirconium-rich star ever analysed.  They
made the discovery while looking for chemical clues to explain why a
small group of stars known as helium-rich hot subdwarfs, which are
reaching the end of their lives, have much less hydrogen on their
surfaces than most otherwise similar stars.  Using data obtained with
the Anglo-Australian Telescope at Siding Spring in New South Wales,
they looked at the evolved star LS IV -14° 116, 600 parsecs away
towards the border between the constellations of Capricornus and
The spectrum of LS IV -14° 116 had the usual lines arising from common
elements, but other strong lines were less easy to identify.  Four of
the lines proved to be due to Zr IV (triply-ionized zirconium), that
exists only at temperatures above 20 000°C and had never previously
been identified in an astronomical spectrum.  The zirconium abundance
is about ten thousand times as high as in the Sun.  Other spectral
lines proved to come from Sr II, Ge III and Y III (ionized strontium,
germanium and yttrium), and those elements are between one thousand
and ten thousand times more abundant than normal.  The astronomers
argue that the unusual abundances in LS IV -14° 116 are caused by
stratification of elements in the star's atmosphere -- the only part
of a star that can be seen directly.  A process called radiatively-
driven diffusion can concentrate certain elements, mainly metals
heavier than calcium, in the layer that we observe, even though their
overall abundances in the star as a whole may be near normal.  It is
suggested that the star is shrinking from being a bright cool giant to
a faint hot subdwarf.  As the star shrinks, different elements sink
down or float up in the atmosphere to a region where they become
highly visible, making the  apparent composition very sensitive to
the star's recent history.
Astronomers have confirmed the existence of an atmosphere around a
'super-Earth' exo-planet known as GJ 1214b, observed as it transited
in front of its parent star and some of the starlight passed through
its atmosphere.  GJ 1214b is about 2.6 times as big as the Earth and
6.5 times as massive.  It is about 12 parsecs away, towards Ophiuchus.
It is a faint star, but is also small, so the size of the planet is
not too small compared to the stellar disc, making it relatively easy
to study.  The planet crosses the disc of its parent star once every
38 hours as it orbits at a distance of only two million kilometres --
70 times closer than the Earth is to the Sun.  Although there is now
known to be an atmosphere around the planet, it has not been possible
to decide whether it is made mostly of water in the form of steam, or
is obscured, dominated by thick clouds or hazes.
Science Daily
A Japanese probe bound for Venus has failed to reach orbit and is now
heading towards the Sun.  It was designed to monitor volcanic activity
and provide data on the thick cloud cover and climate, including
whether the planet has lightning.  It will be six years before the
Japanese Space Agency can make another attempt.  Japan has never
succeeded in an interplanetary mission but has previously launched
several rockets into space; in 1998 it launched a Mars mission that
was plagued by technical glitches and was finally abandoned in 2003.
The next scheduled bulletin will appear on 2011 January 9.
Meanwhile, may I take the opportunity of wishing all our
subscribers a very happy Christmas and peaceful New Year.
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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