All posts for the month March, 2003

The Moon?

This lunar image courtesy Daniel Bramich and Aditya Tayal, Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes, La Palma, Spain More information can be found here. For a picture of what the Moon looks like today, visit the U.S. Naval Observatory website.

This lunar image courtesy Daniel Bramich and Aditya Tayal, Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes, La Palma, Spain More information can be found here. For a picture of what the Moon looks like today, visit the U.S. Naval Observatory website.

I was up early this morning (about 5:30 a.m.) and while I was making some tea, I glanced out the window and saw a lovely waning crescent Moon. It was somewhat low in the southeast sky and just glowed like a fractured jewel.

Have you ever noticed the Moon during the day? Most people think of the Moon only gracing the evening sky. Oftentimes movies or book illustrations show either a Full Moon or some variation of crescent Moon against a starry or dark backdrop. But, during a part of its monthly cycle, the Moon is visible during the day. If you don’t believe me, start looking for the Moon each night or day and make a note of where and when you see it in the sky. Do this for a couple of months and you’ll see a pattern to its appearances.

When I was in high school the Apollo astronauts landed on the Moon. Of course we couldn’t see the action from our backyards, but many of us did gather around the television and watch as those first steps were taken onto the lunar surface. In these days of instantaneous coverage of distant events, this doesn’t seem very spectacular. But back then, it was pretty amazing technology. We all grew up thinking we’d be living on the Moon in our adulthood. Although that hasn’t happened yet, we can still gaze at the Moon and wonder about what it would be like to live there. Science fiction readers already know: we’d be living underground in carefully constructed and protected air-tight cities. Oh, we might have a few observation screens to look out on the surface, but the safer way to exist on the Moon is underground.

A few entries back I mentioned Hermann Oberth, the great German rocket scientist, and his idea for an orbiting space telescope. He also came up with an idea to put observatories on the Moon — away from Earth’s atmosphere and in near-perfect vacuum. That idea hasn’t exactly died out, and I have no doubt that someday astronomers will live and work on the Moon. Or, if that idea doesn’t suit an observer, he or she will be able to simply “log in” to the lunar observatory for their given observing run from the comfort of an Earth-based location. That’s how a lot of them do it now — using HST or an observatory halfway around the world (or around the block) but watching the action from outside the observatory.

Still, there’s some romantic adventure in going off to do your observing in some distant land, so I imagine there will be folks who will want to go to the Moon for their work. Now all we have to do is get back there!

Image courtesy NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Image courtesy NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

While war rages in Iraq under a campaign of “shock” and “awe” the universe has handed us its own version with the death of a massive star and the formation of a spinning black hole in its place. The nature of the birth announcement was a tremendous explosion of energy called a gamma ray burst. This picture is merely the first “frame” of the event — showing what the star might have looked like as its first death cry echoed out across the light years.

Astronomers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the California Institute of Technology, and NASA released details of the huge gamma ray burst that they witnessed using the High-Energy Transient Explorer (HETE) satellite. The burst took place on October 4, 2002, at 8:06 AM EDT.

This is shock and awe on a scale grander than anything we can possibly imagine, and if it is what scientists think, then the gamma ray burst was the birth cry of a black hole. According to Dr. Derek Fox of the California Institute of Technology, “then HETE has just allowed us into the delivery room.”

Gamma ray bursts shine hundreds of times brighter than a supernova, or as bright as a million trillion suns. The mysterious bursts are common, yet random and fleeting. The gamma ray portion of a burst typically lasts from a few milliseconds to 100 seconds. An afterglow, caused by shock waves from the explosion sweeping up matter and ramming this into the region around the burst, can linger for days or weeks in lower-energy forms of light, such as X-rays or visible light.

This gamma ray burst has been dubbed GRB021004 and was quickly observed not only by HETE but by the Automated Response Telescope (ART) in Wako, Japan, observing the region just 193 seconds after the burst.

Dr. Fox pinpointed the afterglow from images captured by a telescope on Mt. Palomar, near San Diego and alerted other observatories. Ultimately more than 50 telescopes around the world zoomed in on the dying afterglow of this tremendous explosion.

Gamma ray bursts have been under intense study for years because of their powerful, but mysterious nature. This latest burst, caught from the beginning is bringing scientists much closer to understanding what they are and what causes them. Stay tuned!

Portions of this note were taken from a press release. It can be found here.