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Monday, 10 March 2014

SPA ENB No. 371


          Electronic News Bulletin No. 371  2014 March 9

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



A meteorite with the mass of a small car crashed into the Moon last
September, according to Spanish astronomers. The impact, the biggest
seen to date, produced a bright flash and would have been easy to
detect from the Earth.  The Earth's atmosphere prevents small rocks
from space from reaching the surface, and geological activity and
weathering processes tend in time to efface the evidence of even major
impacts.  The Moon has no such atmosphere, and the record of the
collisions that span the 4.5 billion years' history of the Solar
System is plain to see on its surface, in the form of the vast numbers
of craters large and small that cover it.  Although there is little
likelihood now of a very large object striking the Moon or planets,
collisions with smaller objects are very common even today.  The odds
of seeing one of them by chance are very poor, so scientists have set
up networks of telescopes that can detect them automatically.

On 2013 September 11, Prof. Jose M. Madiedo was operating two such
telescopes in the south of Spain.  At 2007 UT he witnessed an
unusually long and bright flash in Mare Nubium, one of the ancient
lava-filled 'seas' of the Moon.  The flash occurred in the
un-illuminated part of the Moon's disc (it was shortly before First
Quarter) and might well have been visible to anyone who happened to be
looking at the Moon at that moment.  It was no doubt the result of a
rock crashing into the lunar surface and was briefly almost as bright
as the Pole Star.  In the video recording made by Prof. Madiedo, an
afterglow remained visible for a further eight seconds.  The event is
the longest and brightest confirmed impact flash ever observed on the
Moon.  It was probably produced by an impactor whose size was of the
order of a metre, and created a new crater with a diameter of around
40 metres.  The impact energy was equivalent to an explosion of
roughly 15 tons of TNT, at least three times higher than the largest
previously seen event observed in March last year.


A group of astronomers from the UK and Chile reports the discovery of
eight small planets orbiting 'nearby' red-dwarf stars.  By way of a
rashly extreme extrapolation from that small sample, the scientists
estimate that a large fraction of red dwarfs, which make up at least
three-quarters of the stars in the Universe (or at least in our
Galaxy -- they are too faint to see in other galaxies) has associated
low-mass planets.  The researchers found the planets by analysing
archival data from two high-precision planet surveys made with the
Ultraviolet and Visual Echelle Spectrograph (UVES) and High-Accuracy
Radial-velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS), both operated by the European
Southern Observatory in Chile.  The two instruments are used to
measure how much a star is affected by the gravity of a planet in
orbit around it.  As an unseen planet orbits a distant star, the star
itself moves (though in a much smaller orbit than the planet) around
their common centre of gravity.  A small periodic variation in the
radial velocity of the star demonstrates the existence of the planet
that is causing it.  By combining the data from UVES and HARPS, the
team reckoned to be able to detect signals that were not strong enough
to be seen in the data from either instrument alone.

The astronomers thereby considered that they had discovered the eight
planets, three of which are in the so-called 'habitable zones' (which
merely means that the temperatures there are usually between freezing
and boiling) of their respective stars and are only a little more
massive than the Earth.  All the newly discovered planets orbit
red-dwarf stars between 15 and 80 light years away.  They take between
two weeks and nine years to complete each orbit, placing them at
distances from their stars of between 6 and 600 million km (equivalent
to between 0.04 and 4 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun).
The team used novel (cynics might say dodgy) analysis techniques to
squeeze the planetary signals out of the data, which did not
obviously exhibit them.  The discoveries add eight new exo-planet
signals to the previous total of 17 already known around such low-mass
stars.  The team also plans to follow up a further ten even weaker


The Kepler team has now discovered 715 new planets.  Kepler works by
looking for the slight dimming of starlight caused when a distant
planet transits its parent star.  Any dip in stellar brightness
attracts the attention of the Kepler team, and can prompt it to
declare a planet candidate.  Verification of candidates can be a
laborious process, proceeding slowly, planet by planet.  Now, however,
researchers have thought up a way to cut corners on the procedure by a
technique they call 'verification by multiplicity'; it relies in part
on the logic of probability, which a cynic might think less trust-
worthy than actual evidence of the planets.  Out of the 160,000 stars
Kepler has observed, a few thousand have planet candidates.  But not
all candidate systems are equal.  A subset of the total, numbering in
the hundreds, has not just one but multiple candidates.  By
concentrating on those systems, the team found 715 planets orbiting
305 stars.  All of the newly-discovered ones are located in
multi-planet systems.  Nearly 95% of the planets are smaller than
Neptune, that is, less than four times the size of the Earth.  That is
a marked increase in the known number of relatively small planets.
The study suggests that planets in multi-systems tend to be small and
their orbits tend to be circular, much like the inner part of our own
Solar System.  Four of the new planets are less than 2.5 times the
diameter of the Earth.


Astronomers see clouds of gas orbiting supermassive black holes at the
centres of galaxies.  Once thought to be in relatively uniform,
fog-like rings, the accreting matter is now thought instead to form
clumps dense enough intermittently to dim the intense radiation
blazing from the vicinities of the holes.  Evidence for the clouds
comes from records collected over 16 years by the Rossi X-ray Timing
Explorer, a satellite in low Earth orbit equipped with instruments
that measure variations in X-ray sources.  Those sources include
active galactic nuclei, brilliantly luminous objects powered by
supermassive black holes as they gather and condense huge quantities
of dust and gas.

From records for 55 active galactic nuclei, astronomers found a dozen
instances where the X-ray signal dimmed for periods of time ranging
from hours to years, presumably when a cloud of dense gas passed
between the source and satellite.  The clouds they observed orbit a
few light-weeks to a few light-years from the centres of the nuclei.


Four very distant galaxy clusters, each potentially containing
thousands of individual galaxies, have newly been discovered.
Astronomers used a new way of combining data from two ESA satellites,
Planck and Herschel, to identify more distant galaxy clusters than has
previously been possible.  The researchers believe up to 2000 further
clusters could be identified using that technique, helping to build a
more detailed time-line of how clusters are formed.  Galaxy clusters
are the most massive objects in the Universe, containing hundreds to
thousands of galaxies, bound together by gravity.  While astronomers
have identified many nearby clusters, they need to go further back in
time to understand how such structures are formed.  The light from the
most distant of the four new clusters identified by the team has taken
over 10 billion years to reach us, so the researchers are seeing what
the cluster looked like when the Universe was 'only' three billion
years old.

Although we are able to see individual galaxies that go further back
in time, up to now the most distant clusters found by astronomers date
back to when the universe was 4.5 billion years old.  Clusters can be
identified at such distances because they contain galaxies in which
huge amounts of dust and gas are being formed into stars.  Galaxies
are divided into two types: elliptical galaxies that have many stars,
but little dust and gas; and spiral galaxies like our own, which
contain lots of dust and gas.  Most clusters today are dominated by
giant elliptical galaxies in which the dust and gas has already been
formed into stars.  It is thought that what we are seeing in the
distant clusters are giant elliptical galaxies in the process of being

Observations were recorded by the Spectral and Photometric Imaging
Receiver (SPIRE) instrument as part of the Herschel Multi-tiered
Extragalactic Survey (HerMES).  The researchers are among the first to
combine data from two satellites both of which ended their operations
last year: Planck, which scanned the whole sky, and Herschel, which
surveyed certain sections in greater detail.  The researchers used
Planck data to find sources of far-infrared emission in areas covered
by the Herschel satellite, then cross-referenced with Herschel data to
look at those sources more closely.  Of sixteen sources identified by
the researchers, most were confirmed as single, nearby galaxies that
were already known.  However, four were shown by Herschel to be formed
of multiple, fainter sources, indicating previously unknown galaxy
clusters.  The team then used additional existing data and new
observations to estimate the distances of those clusters and to
determine which of the galaxies within them were forming stars.  The
researchers are now hoping to identify more clusters by that
technique, with the aim of looking further back in time to the
earliest stage of cluster formation.


A new instrument called MUSE (Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer) has
been installed on ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal
Observatory in northern Chile.  MUSE's scientific goals include
looking at the mechanisms of galaxy formation in the early Universe,
and studying both the motions of material in nearby galaxies and their
chemical properties, but it will be able to do other things as well.
MUSE uses 24 spectrographs to create both images and spectra of
selected regions of the sky.  It creates 3D views of the Universe with
a spectrum for each pixel as the third dimension.  In the subsequent
analysis the astronomer can move through the data and study different
views of the object at different wavelengths.

By Geoff Elston, SPA Solar Section Director

There were some high levels of sunspot activity, particularly
mid-month, and there was one naked-eye sunspot in early January that
reappeared at the end of the month.  The continued stormy weather
across much of the UK in January did not help our observations, but we
only lost 3 days to poor weather thanks to the dedication of our

Rotation Nos. 2145 & 2146:  The Mean Daily Frequency rose very
slightly to 5.97 in January and the Relative Sunspot Number increased
to 81.98.

WHITE-LIGHT ACTIVITY: January started with Active Region (AR) 1936, a
complex cluster of medium- and small-sized sunspots, having reached
the Central Meridian (CM) by end-December, heading towards the West
(W) limb.  The group was reported as flare-active but it did not
produce any significant geomagnetic storms.  That group was swiftly
followed (and somewhat overshadowed) by the appearance of AR 1944.
That too was flare-active and appeared over the East (E) limb on the
first day of the New Year.  I was alerted on the 3rd that AR 1944 was
visible with the (suitably protected) naked eye.  Its visibility was
due to the structure of the main spot, which had a big dark umbra
within a fairly large round penumbra. The group was seen with the
naked eye until about the 11th, by which time it was nearing the W
limb. On that day AR 1944 showed fragmented penumbrae and numerous
umbrae. The main spot was almost oval except for two small extensions,
and the following parts of the group included a fairly intact sunspot
with a trail of penumbrae and umbrae with some pores.  Little did we
know as AR 1944 went over the W limb on the 14th there was more to come
from that sunspot group!

From the 14th onwards there was a number of medium- and small-sized
spots across the solar disc.  AR 1949 and 1953 were by then over the
CM.  AR 1949 showed two spots close together with fairly prominent
umbrae.  AR 1953 was a cluster of smaller spots in which 9 umbrae were
counted.  Although fairly spotted, the Sun was quiet, but there was a
number of small spots near the SE limb; the largest, AR 1960, showed a
horseshoe-shaped umbra.  By the 20th the Sun was still quite spotted
and AR 1960 was much the same but AR 1959 to the south had developed
and was showing a trail of smaller spots behind the main leader.  Both
AR 1959 and AR 1960 had reached the CM by the 25th.

The 27th saw the return of AR 1944 at the E limb, re-designated AR
1967 and was immediately said to be highly flare-active.  As it moved
away from the limb in late January to early February it was clearly
seen with the protected naked eye, and through the telescope with a
solar filter the whole group showed a lot of detailed structure. website ( reported that a strong
M-class flare had produced a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) on the 30th.
Just north of AR 1967 was another complex train of smaller sunspots,
AR 1968, a group that would have been impressive on its own if it were
not right next to AR 1967.


In line with sunspot activity, H-alpha activity also increased.  There
were numerous prominences around the limb on the 2nd.  Most were small
low-lying spikes but there was also a couple of tall spikes and an
ejected prominence near the N limb.  On the disc there were some
bright plages visible around sunspot groups 1936 and 1944 and some
dark filaments.  The 8th saw some more substantial prominences,
particularly on the NE limb, and a bright and active prominence on the
NW limb. There were plages around all the many sunspots visible (the
most prominent were around 1944). There were also several dark
filaments, especially a large bowed filament on the southern
hemisphere.  The 9th saw many prominences, mainly along the E limb.
Across the disc was a mixture of bright plages and dark filaments!
The high level of activity continued, and by the 11th, as 1944 was
nearing the W limb, there were several complex and beautiful
prominences on the SE and NW and W limbs.  There were many bright
plages, largely clustered around sunspot groups 1944, 1948 and 1949,
and dark filaments lying further away on the solar disc.  Two disc
drawings received show that activity very well.  The 13th and 14th saw
prominence activity still at a high level, with some ejected
prominences on the E limb and NW limb.  Another image shows the
ejected prominence on the NW limb on the 14th.  Prominence activity as
well as plage and filament activity was mostly confined to the
southern hemisphere by the 16th.  A fine group of intricate arch-type
prominences was seen along the SE limb, and plages were seen near
sunspots 1949 and 1955 as well as a fairly extensive dusky broad
filament nearing the SW limb.  On the 23rd the SE and W limbs showed
some detailed prominence activity, and on the disc plage and filament
activity was seen either around or nearby 1955, 1957, and 1959 (which
also had a long dark filament nearby).  Sunspots 1960, 1963 and 1965
had plage and filament activity among them.

MDF (P): 7.82

Bulletin compiled by Clive Down

(c) 2014 the Society for Popular Astronomy

Society for Popular Astronomy | 36 Fairway, Keyworth
This email was sent to
Good Clear Skies
Colin James Watling
Various Voluntary work-Litter Picking for Parish Council (Daytime) and also a friend of Kessingland Beach (Watchman)
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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