Friday, February 11, 2011

A Comet Encounter & A Storm on Saturn

We live in amazing times with access to more astronomical information than you can easily digest available to us almost instantly on our computers or smart phones.

NASA has done a fine job of making images from the missions to other worlds visible to the public (as they should since the public is footing the bill) pretty much as they come into to scientists. You will get the chance to see some brand-new imagery on Monday evening as NASA’s Stardust-NExT spacecraft makes a flyby of comet Tempel 1 at 8:37 p.m. PST.

This will be the second time that Tempel 1 has been visited by a spacecraft. You may recall that the Deep Impact mission crashed a big hunk of copper into the comet on July 4, 2005. The resulting impact as captured by the flyby probe was spectacular. (Why was the impact probe made of copper? Comets are not made of copper. Everything ejected by the impact what wasn’t made of copper was part of the comet)

The Deep Impact spacecraft did not see the crater that was produced from the crash. As the Stardust-NExT spacecraft makes its flyby on Valentine’s evening the team hopes to image the new crater. They are also hoping to see any changes that have may taken place to the comet as it has made one orbit around the sun since the last flyby. So if you don't have a Valentine's Day encounter of your own lined up, you may wish to visit the Stardust-NExT website to see theirs.

Another probe that is returning amazing results is the Cassini mission to Saturn. The Cassini imaging team posts their raw images on their website as they come in. Here and there among the calibration images of star fields are space-art like views of Saturn with its rings and moons. Here is a representative raw image that I grabbed earlier today:

This image of Saturn was taken one week ago (February 4, 2011). Cassini was almost 2 million kilometers (1.2 million miles) from Saturn when the photo was captured. It shows a partially illuminated Saturn with its rings appearing as a thin line running from the upper left to the lower right. The shadows of the rings can be seen on Saturn’s cloud tops just to the right of the rings.

Much more interesting is the amazing weather disturbance to the left of the rings. It is called the “northern electrostatic disturbance”  after its location in Saturn’s northern hemisphere & its frequent lightning discharges observed by Cassini.

This naturally occurring, but rare weather outburst is visible to anyone armed with a decent-sized amateur telescope.  Saturn is currently in the constellation of Virgo and doesn’t rise until 10 pm or so. As such it is best seen after midnight when it is higher in the sky.

There is no telling how long the storm will last or when such an event will next be seen, so look now while it lasts. I confess I have not had the time to go out and have a look (too much time at work), but I encourage everyone with a telescope to give it a shot.

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