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All posts for the month March, 2012

Hercules Saves the Day

Want to explore galaxies?  Look no further than the latest image of interacting galaxies in the Hercules Cluster.  It’s chock full of ‘em!

A high-resolution view of the Hercules Cluster and its interacting galaxies, courtesy the Very Large Telescope at European Southern Observatory in Chile. This beautiful image shows not only the galaxies of the Hercules galaxy cluster, but also many faint and fuzzy objects in the background, which are galaxies that are much further away from us. Closer to home, several brilliant Milky Way stars are also visible in the foreground and there are even a few asteroids that have left short trails as they moved slowly across the image during the exposures. Click to experience your own galaxy interaction.

This glorious image was taken with the VLT Survey Telescope (VST) at ESO’s Paranal Observatory.  When you dig into this image, you can see a collection of interacting galaxies that lie about 500 million light-years away.

This cluster is a rather interesting one and the story accompanying this image on the ESO Web site is a study in galaxy interactions.  As well as being somewhat irregular in shape, there are many different types of galaxies.  Some are young and active, creating many new stars.  About the only type of galaxies this cluster doesn’t have are giant ellipticals.

You’ll find galaxy pairs getting up close and personal with each other, well on their way to merging into single, larger galaxies. The numerous other interactions, and the large number of gas-rich, star-forming spiral galaxies in the cluster, make the members of the Hercules cluster look like the young galaxies that astronomers see in the distant universe (farther back in cosmic history).  Because of this similarity, astronomers believe that the Hercules galaxy cluster is a relatively young cluster.  It’s thought to be a collection of at least three smaller subclusters and groups that are all assembling themselves into a much larger structure within the cluster.  But, the interactions don’t stop there… the Hercules cluster itself is merging with other large clusters to form a galaxy supercluster.  All this information is giving astronomers good insight into how larger galaxy structures and clusters assemble themselves together in the universe over cosmic time.  Stay tuned!

 

Lunar and Otherwise

I have a great gig doing cruise ship enrichment presentations about astronomy.  Lots of good conversations flow after my talks, particularly at sunset when some of us gather on the top deck to wave goodbye to the Sun.  Sunsets at sea are some of my favorite scenes, so I always make time to enjoy them.

One of the questions I got from a passenger recently was about how he’d read that the survivors of the Titanic sinking in 1912 had looked up at the stars as they floated (freezing) in their lifeboats awaiting rescue.  I would imagine the view would have been spectacular in the chilly scene.  It’s interesting that people did mention seeing the stars, considering what a life-threatening situation they were in.  Maybe those things become more important when the end appears nigh.

Speaking of Titanic, there’s a theory afloat now (see what I did there?) about how a team of astronomers from Texas State Universe in San Marcos worked together with Sky & Telescope’s senior contributing correspondent Roger Sinnott, to figure out if the Moon played a roll in this infamous disaster.

The sinking of the Titanic was headline news; did the Moon play a role?

Most of us know the story: the ship was supposedly unsinkable, and was steaming through an iceberg-ridden seas when it struck a huge chunk of ice, took on water, and went down, killing 1,500 people.  Those facts are unsinkable. Or unassailable, so to speak.  What the team found interesting, however, was that the Moon, along with the Sun and Earth may have played a curious role in the sinking.

Early in 1912, the Moon and Sun had lined up in such a way their gravitational pulls enhanced each other more than usual. That created a well-known effect called a spring tide, which was an unusually high tide. At the same time, the Moon was at perigee — that it is, it was at its closest Earth, and it was the closest perigee in 1,400 years. Perigee came within six minutes of a full Moon. To add icing to this orbitally dynamical cake, Earth had just passed through its own closest approach to the Sun (called perihelion) the day before. In astronomical terms, this was like the perfect storm of variables that may have contributed to another phenomenon:  many more icebergs clogging up the sea lanes that year.

How would this have happened? According to the Texas State group, the fate of the Titanic was sealed by the prevalence of  grounded and stranded icebergs. Icebergs calve off of glaciers in Greenland and take to the seas. As they travel south, many get stuck in the shallow waters off the coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland. Normally, icebergs remain in place and cannot resume moving southward until they’ve melted enough to refloat or the tide rises high enough for them to float free.  A single iceberg can become stuck multiple times on its journey southward, a process that can take several years. The unusually high tide in Jan. 1912 would have been enough to dislodge many of those icebergs and move them back into the southbound ocean currents, where they would have just enough time to reach the shipping lanes for that fateful encounter with the Titanic.

You can read more of this fascinating story in the April 2012 edition of Sky & Telescope magazine.

 

No UFOs Here

The post-sunset view on March 11, planets Venus and Jupiter. Click for a larger view.

Unless you’ve been buried under a blanket of clouds the past few weeks, you’ve probably noticed some bright lights in the western sky just after sunset.  Aside from the Moon (and you know what that looks like, don’t you?), you might be wondering what they are.  Well, if they’re not moving rapidly (like changing position over the space of a few minutes, as aircraft would do), then what you’re seeing are the planets Venus and Jupiter.  Here’s tonight’s view of the pair, well after sunset. You won’t see Mercury (too close to the Sun), but you can’t fail to notice how dazzling the two planets appear these early springish nights.

If you have binoculars or a small telescope, check out Jupiter. You might be able to see its four largest moons. They’ll look like little pinpoints of light on either side of Jupiter.

Mars is just below Leo, and Saturn and Spica rise together later in the evening. Click to ensaturnate.

 

The next couple of nights, these two planets snuggle up really close together in the western sky.   Once you’ve found them, and turn toward the east and look for Mars snuggled up underneath the constellation, Leo the Lion.  An hour or two later, you should be able to find Saturn just rising in the East. It’s a planet spectacular!

Of course, there are a lot of other things to look at in the sky this month, so don’t run back inside after you’ve seen the planet.  Dress warmly (if it’s cold where you are), and explore that sky!  There’s a lot to be found.

By the way, check out “Our Night Sky” at Astrocast.TV for a short program I did on what’s up this month.  It’s free to embed on observatory and planetarium Web sites (with proper credit, of course), so check it out!